Bryan Caplan  

Caplan-Smith GMU Debate: "How Deserving Are the Poor?"

One-Sentence Tax Reform... Educational Disintermediation...
Next week, I'm going to debate Modeled Behavior's Karl Smith on "How Deserving Are the Poor?"  Logistics:

Date: Wednesday, February 1
Time: 6:00-9:00 PM
Location: Johnson Center Meeting Room A, George Mason University (Fairfax Campus)

My strategy, as usual, is to use an uncontroversial moral premise to show that the status quo is absurd.  The premise: You are poor by your own fault if there are reasonable steps you could take - or could have taken - to avoid poverty.  Karl's position, in contrast, is that:

Why humans are suffering is of concern to us in knowing when our interventions might be productive but it doesn't affect whether they are warranted.

In the extreme, take the example of Fred, who is suffering because he constantly turns on the water in his bathtub too hot. When asked why, Fred answer I don't know, I just do. Hot baths always seem good right before I step in, and then I burn myself.

The key question here are

1) Is there anything productive we can do to help Fred

2) Will our resources be more productive in helping someone else.

However, the seeming absurdity of Fred's behavior is itself not and issue.
Here's one application of my economic philosophy of poverty, and Karl's replyHere's Karl on Beaulier-Caplan's "Behavioral Economics and Perverse Effects of the Welfare State; I wonder if he's made up his mind yet.  Fun, fun, fun.

P.S. The Econ Club is looking into recording the debate.  Stayed tuned.

P.P.S. Broken link to Bealier-Caplan fixed.

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (21 to date)
JLA writes:

Karl's position is clearly absurd, but I'm not convinced that yours is much better. Who would want and choose to be poor if they knew how to avoid it? The steps to escaping poverty that are obvious to you are probably not remotely obvious to somebody whose entirely life has been spent in a ghetto, with horrible parents and failed schools. Even if the steps out are obvious, sometimes they may be impossible. How is somebody in the ghetto supposed to look for a job when they can't afford bus fare?

FWIW, one of my colleagues has a working paper on the effect of subsidizing travel of very low-income people to get to work/look for jobs. Not surprisingly, even a minor subsidy lowered unemployment in the trial group compared to the control group. This suggests that at least some poor people are aware of the steps to get out of poverty, but are so budget-constrained that it is impossible to carry out those steps.

joeftansey writes:

"Who would want and choose to be poor if they knew how to avoid it?"

People who don't want to go to work every day and put consistent efforts towards their tasks and professionalism.

"How is somebody in the ghetto supposed to look for a job when they can't afford bus fare?"

Really? I'm pretty sure most poor people can afford public transit. That's what public transit is for. Poor people.

Bryan's position is that the majority of American poor have reasonable opportunities that they don't take advantage of. He would probably change his case if someone were so poor that they didn't have bus fair, or were stuck on some other real physical trap.

If I had to guess, one of the majors points Bryan is likely to make is that unwed parenthood is a significant predictor of poverty, and that pregnancy is something that individuals have a great deal control over. Therefore, they themselves are in the best position to help alleviate poverty.

Sister Y writes:

Karl Smith's If I Were A Poor Black Kid can be read as a response to the Marsh idea.

The "irresponsibility" of poor people breeding might not be the kind of irresponsibility we usually object to. One interpretation is that the lives of poor people are so bleak that there is really nothing better for them than to have babies. It's rational for them, in the sense of utility-maximizing - it's not a mistake or akrasia. (Bryan Caplan has to hammer on educated folks to get us to breed more, because we have more attractive options in our lives.)

How can you distinguish laziness from pain?

Caplan is motivated to see failure to act like a middle class person as laziness, because if it were true that life were unpleasant or painful, it wouldn't be an unmitigated good to breed.

I'm motivated to see failure to act as a middle class person (drugs, crime, having a litter at 15, etc.) as a response to pain, because that makes it clearer that breeding is NOT an unmitigated good.

Karl Smith is obviously somewhere between us on this.

Stephen writes:

It's because bias and discrimination in Education. Ivy League being the worst offenders. The top students, highest IQs, are attracted to Ivy League b/c revolving door of opportunties. The government needs to step in and allow a substantial number of normal students a chance at Ivy League Education, this will help the less fortunate and give them the needed opportunity of a better paying jobs.

Otherwise, the economic stratification of the top 1% will continue and things will get worse.

Costard writes:

Stephen - I'll worry about you less if I assume that you're being satirical.

IMO the only correct answer to the debate question is: only God knows. To say otherwise is to make a philosophical argument about free will that you can never prove. Karl lands closer to this truth, his response is less judgmental, and his argument will not upset so many stomachs as Bryan's.

We cannot know - at least on a policy level - whether our charity will alleviate a person's suffering, or by preventing a change in behavior, increase it. Nor can we know whether society will be better or worse off. Given this uncertainty the reasonable political course is to do nothing, and leave charitable action to the judgment and the sympathy of those individuals closest to the situation.

It might be worth pointing out to Karl that denying Fred's free will, or simply ignoring it, necessarily infringes on his liberty. To the extent that he is protected from himself, he loses his ability to improve himself or his condition. The peculiar viciousness of poverty in the welfare state is that only the superhuman escape. Like Circe's island it turns people into animals, and by making them fat, considers them happy.

Collin writes:


From most of your posts, you believe most poor people deserve to be poor because they make bad choices with marriage (or lack of) and children. What if everybody in society decided to do so? Currently most people are putting off marriage but also putting off children. It seems like if young people in the bottom 40 - 50% make more rational children decisions, society will not have enough births. Isn't this a little bit is what has happened in Japan?

Becky Hargrove writes:

I hope that this will be recorded and posted on your blog. Only one thing I would add: low income people can be waylaid by legalities of all kinds when they 'do the right thing' and marry, because they just do not have the resources to negotiate over assets or personal matters, should problems arise. Plus, attorneys don't really have the incentives to point out such problems, or often even the tools to tend to those issues in affordable ways.

AJ writes:

The moral relationship of any of us as individuals (or groups we voluntarily belong to) to poor people and their various causes or choices is very different from the moral obligation of government, particularly national government.


AJ writes:


Consider the total national+state budget spent on social programs that are loosely justified because of "poor people and their needs." Assume 15% of U.S. are poor If you do the math, you will see that approximately $50,000 per year is spent per poor individual ($150,000/yr per household of three).

What are the implications of this for the answers to your questions?


Fazal Majid writes:

A more interesting question: who are the deserving rich?


Steve Jobs: deserving

Angelo Mozilo, John Thain et al: not so much...

Chris Stucchio writes:

Sister Y, Karl Smiths 'If I were a poor black kid' is flawed. There is nothing in his argument which is specific to the poor.

His argument is based on the premise that having children is "the most important and valuable thing in life". But as far as I know, rich kids feel the same way, so his argument doesn't explain much about the choices of the poor relative to the rich.

JD Johnson writes:

Bryan's argument is premised on a false notion of rational objectivity. If all of us were purely objective economic actors, it would make sense to suggest that the poor among us could build upon their relatively limited stock of resources to emerge from poverty. But here's where economics needs to take a cue from psychology and neuroscience: the human brain is a highly subjective engine and, as our result, our perception of reality and our own sense of identity is extremely pliable based on our immediate surroundings. If we live in an environment with failing schools, meager above-ground opportunities, fragmented family structures and a set of economic signals that encourage either: (A) winner-take-all competition with a negligible probability of success (e.g. the lottery, professional sport aspirations), or (B) underground activity-- namely, employment in the drug trade or organized crime, how likely is it that we'll make the "rational" choice to pursue a path of middle class upward mobility?

So, if we're making an argument about how to alleviate poverty via the least costly route, we ought to consider the enormous externality imposed by social conditions and how that distorts individual choice.

Jon writes:

The fact is there are more job seekers than there are job vacancies. Our society is constructed such that there will be people who want employment but won't find it. And employment is the only real choice when you have no capital (except for a few brilliant inventors possibly).

Technological advancement continuously obsoletes jobs. That would be great if we didn't distribute the resources the way we do. You have to either own the equipment and make money due to your ownership claim (like a Wal-Mart heir that does no work but collects checks from profit) or you have to work for the owner and get paid a salary. When that owner obsoletes you with technological advancement the additional profit of course goes to the owner, or perhaps is partially shared with the remaining employees. The person out of work gets nothing except what he can get via the welfare state and charity. Are we going to blame the people that are inevitably going to be produced under this scheme?

Navin Kumar writes:

Here's what it looks like to me-

Bryan: Most of those who are poor today deserve their poverty.

Karl: Doesn't matter; we should help if we can

I get the feeling that there's going to be a lot of talking past the other...

Vicunia writes:

This idea of the deserving poor might be valid in a closed set: country, region, group.

If you have the chance of interviewing people in Argentina, for example, you will get to know hundreds of intelligent, creative, hard-working people who have repeadly lost all their money due to bad Government policies.

[login url deleted--Econlib Ed.]

kio writes:

The big picture of the distribution of personal incomes, PID, in the US is expressed by a constant Gini ratio as reprted by teh Census Bureau. It is the CB who defines the level of poverty from the same survey (CPS ASEC) as for the PIDs .
If to interpret the evolution of PID (and Gini ratio) since 1947 in terms of the presence of poverty one can conclude that the frozen PID evidences in favor of hypothesis that all people are responsible for the fiven PID configuration. Moreover, everybody has a nonzero probability to get poor and fall to the bottom of the PID.
On the other hand , the resilience of the PIDto all changes in economic, demographic, and social processes since 1947 means that the forces between individuals which result in a quasi-exponential income distribution at lower incoems and a Pareto distribution at higher incomes are too strong to be counteracted by individual efforts. One needs extraordinary social shake to change the current PID.

Thus, I would say that poor people do not deserve their positions becasue these are other people who really shifted them down.

Cyberike writes:

Read this article and tell me that culture is NOT part of the problem we have dealing with poverty in this country:

I would like to see a discussion of how there can be such a large disconnect between what different segments of society see as acceptable behavior. For example, hip-hop culture celebrates sexual promiscuity.

Michael Keenan writes:
Brennan writes:


You are aware, I presume, that the premise of "poor people don't know what's best for themselves" in your first paragraph is incompatible with the results of the study you reference in your second paragraph?

Just askin'.


Sister Y writes:

Chris Stucchio, interesting - you don't think there's a major difference between rich and poor kids in terms of the expected value of non-childbearing options?

Jameson Burt writes:

[Comment removed for rudeness and crude language. Email the to request restoring your comment privileges.--Econlib Ed.]

Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top