Bryan Caplan  

Imagine Grateful Welfare Recipients

Rand vs. Human Weakness... The Hill Criteria and the Stim...
Imagine the following scenario: Recipients of food stamps, unemployment insurance, Medicaid, and student loans suddenly start expressing daily heartfelt gratitude to the taxpayers who provide for them.  The eager proponents of these programs stop angrily demanding more.  Instead, they spend their days proclaiming their appreciation for everyone who forks over their hard-earned dollars to help those in need.  When asked, "Should we spend more?," proponents coyly reply, "You're doing so much already.  Can you really can afford it?"

What happens to the size of the welfare state in this scenario?  It's hard to be sure, but I tend to think the welfare state would expand.  Sure, libertarians would press our rhetorical advantage; we're boorish that way.  But conservatives and moderates would no longer feel like suckers.  In the current regime, the welfare state robs and insults them.  Conservatives and moderates would feel far better about redistribution if everyone framed it as an exchange of cash for status.

Since I want the welfare state to vanish, I'm a little nervous to publicize these observations.  But realistically, I don't need to worry.  In politics, hate is stronger than love.  The biggest friends of the welfare state would rather see the welfare state disappear than publicly say "Please" or "Thank you" to the taxpayers who make their favorite programs possible.

COMMENTS (29 to date)
KenF writes:

You forgot public school students. Ungrateful little brats.

Sam writes:

Excellent idea. Take it one further, even. Thank a cop.

The other day I saw a couple of uniformed police officers coming out of a restaurant. I told them that I appreciated their work and especially the laser speed trap that had been operating near my neighborhood recently.

The one of them wasn't sure if I was sincere and the other one was looking for the Candid Camera crew...

roo writes:

What if we means-test for politeness? What if in hyper-efficient libertopia welfare gets replaced by a bounty system where you get $5 for shaving and $10 for pulling your pants up, for gosh sakes. We could all live comfortably functioning as a model citizenry for Warren Buffet's viewing pleasure.

Ben writes:

Through what mechanism of communication would you suggest that welfare recipients express their gratitude? Somehow, I can't imagine "Poor to rich: thank you" making the front page.

Through what mechanism of communication do you determine that welfare recipients are angry and demanding? What percentage of recipients do you actually think are ungrateful?

Brian writes:

Since student loans and unemployment insurance are paid for by the recipients themselves, would they need to send thank you notes to their own homes? Should we relax postal regulations so they could drop the cards into their own mailboxes or require them to put a stamp on the envelopes and mail them properly at the post office?

Food stamps and Medicaid are different, but student loans, unemployment insurance, GSE loans, Social Security, Medicare, and other middle class benefits are paid for by the middle class themselves with the government taking a vig along the way. Welfare for the poor is tiny in comparison.

Mercer writes:

I find it strange for an employee of a public college to denounce student loans and proclaim that he is a libertarian who wishes the welfare state would go away.

Notorious B.O.B. writes:

I'm waiting for the day that the PBS announcements thank NOT the "viewers like you" but the taxpayers whose forced exactions "make this program possible" paying the outrageous CPB/PBS salaries and also the fees for "program acquisition" so that, for example, MacNeil and others can make millions on the public dole.

Brandon Berg writes:

Food stamps and Medicaid are different, but student loans, unemployment insurance, GSE loans, Social Security, Medicare, and other middle class benefits are paid for by the middle class themselves with the government taking a vig along the way.

Medicare is more welfare than insurance. It's paid for by a flat tax on wages, and benefits don't increase with greater contributions, so there's a pretty big subsidy from high income earners to low income earners. Also, I believe that the student loan subsidies come from general tax revenues, so that has a certain welfare-like quality to it as well.

Brandon Berg writes:

So if someone who does benefit from the welfare state criticizes it, he's a hypocrite. And if someone who doesn't benefit from the welfare state criticizes it, he's greedy. Got it. Is anyone allowed to object to the welfare state, or is dissent inherently illegitimate?

Gary Rogers writes:

This falls under the category of "don't feed the animals". You might expect friendly animals when you feed them but animals just feel entitled and demand more.

litehouse writes:

"But conservatives and moderates would no longer feel like suckers. In the current regime, the welfare state robs and insults them."

Conservatives are probably net-recipients of transfers. See a nice chart by Paul Krugman. Talking about "robbing" in this context is absurd.

Moreover, you just presume that welfare recipients are not grateful. When was the last time you have actually talked to someone who is living on food-stamps? From the ones I know, they are actually glad about the assistance they recieve. I find your article demagogic.

[Angle brackets changed to quotation marks in several places else the quoted text would not have shown up for readers. To quote text, please use quotation marks or html-blockquote; or use the "quote" button we offer. --Econlib Ed.]

RPLong writes:

Underlying this post is a question that nags me every single day: At what point do we decide that the level of welfare spending is "enough"?

Seriously, think about it. I challenge any progressive or welfare advocate to outline a scenario in which welfare spending can be reduced - or even held at current levels.

Libertarians are at least clear that they want zero government welfare. Progressives are far less clear. They want "more" but never outline how much more. Yet when they get more, it's never enough.

So, what is "enough?" Can any progressive define what the ideal endpoint is? I think not.

Andreas Moser writes:

The absence of a revolution is already the expressed gratefulness.

johnson writes:
What percentage of recipients do you actually think are ungrateful?

I'd guess a sizeable percentage. I think the ones that have hit hard times and view it as temporary are probably grateful, but the ones who view it as an alternative to working are not. They just view it as something they are entitled to. That said, that's just a guess and I doubt most people that are net contributors have a lot of interaction with welfare recipients.

Leftist politicians could do a lot to change this perception if they talked about how generous tax payers are to provide these benefits, but they can't do that while simultaneously calling people greedy for not paying their fair share.

Realistic writes:

Brandon Berg,

When did Mercer ever say that "someone who doesn't benefit from the welfare state criticizes it, [they're a] hypocrite?"

Way to beat a strawman.

Bryan Caplan is a state employee. He could look for work in the private sector, but he won't. Unless his salary and benefits are paid for from outside the state treasury, by his own standards he's "an ungrateful welfare recipient."

Realistic writes:

I was wondering what these ungrateful welfare recipients look like. Probably something like this:

The latest round of layoffs [due to austerity measures] has driven some people to despair. In Central Athens, on Wednesday, a young woman who had just lost her job threatened to take her life.

Lambrousia Harikleia climbed onto the balcony of her workplace and threatened to jump. The mother of a handicapped child, she perched on the ledge of her office building, one slated for closure.

Her rescuers promised her problems could be solved. She accused them of lying.

What will we do with these ingrates?!?
Chuck Rudd writes:

Think of it like this: if you’re a man, say you took a woman out to dinner and a movie and even bought her gifts and flowers (talk about a Ponzi scheme). How would you feel if she complained that you didn’t take her to a better restaurant or didn’t buy her a nice enough purse or brought lilies instead of roses? And what if she called you cheap afterwards? And even if she wasn’t so hostile, what if she never said “Thank you”?

Nathanael Snow writes:

David Levy keenly has his students read both Homer's Illiad, and Plato's Republic in his History of Economic Thought classes, before reading Adam Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments.
What this literature teaches us is that approbation is among the strongest motivations of mankind.
But approbation cannot be permitted to transform into power relations. What is required is an egalitarian treatment of all agents in the model. Smith maintains this.
What the vestments of state generate is a distinction and an allocation of power which erodes, or heavily discounts, the approbation due to the agent allocating approbation-worthy gifts. Power becomes a substitute for approbation, it cannot be treated as a complement.
Agents receiving gifts recognize whether they are being offered in exchange for approbation or power. Their response is predicated on the orientation of the donor.
This is why charity from organizations which do not claim power, or a monopoly on force, produce positive results, gratitude and changed lives; while charity from the state generates entitlement, resentment, and stagnant living.

jb writes:

In a similar vein, a co-worker told me about a story he watched about 10,000 head african antelope farm in Texas. They pay the bills by letting people hunt the antelope. The herd was originally much, much, much smaller (and apparently this breed of antelope is nearly extinct in Africa)

The news report presented the facts - the antelope are being saved and protected because of the hunting. An anti-hunting advocate apparently said that she would rather see the antelope go extinct rather than tolerate hunting.

Some people just want to watch the world burn.

Jeff writes:

On the question of whether people on the dole are, in fact, grateful, I think we need to consult one Theodore Dalrymple:

jc writes:
But conservatives and moderates would no longer feel like suckers. In the current regime, the welfare state robs and insults them.

I'm not so sure less opposition = more welfare. Or, at the very least, I think there may be a built in countering force that decreases the increase.

Yes, you often hear that 'back in the day' folks were ashamed to be 'on the dole' and, indeed, grateful for help received from either the forced (govt) or voluntary (charity) contributions of others; while today what you see, at least from recipients of forced giving (how grateful, btw, are most of us when givers have been forced to give?), is the "you owe me because you exploited me" attitude that @Nathanael Snow noted goes hand in hand w/ this type of giving ("entitlement, resentment, and stagnant living"; cue Walter Williams).

I don't know about 'back in the day', but I have experienced plenty of the latter attitude, first hand, from the 1970s to today in cities like Watts and Memphis, and abroad, as well, in transition economies where certain classes found it impossible to adjust. Just how prevalent this attitude is, or how different it is from the past in this or that location, I don't know; it's merely accumulated anecdotal evidence.

If, however, the presumption that at one time folks *were* more grateful is true, does it stand to reason that perhaps grateful recipients today might also be less apt to casually apply for benefits?

In other words, the sense one gets from many who complain about benefits being given is not merely that recipients are not grateful, but that many who do not *need* them apply for them, i.e., a lot of people game the system, or choose to live off given rather than earned funds.

I'm suggesting that a culture of gratitude may go hand in hand with a culture of shame and/or self-respect that, at least in part, reduces the number of people seeking benefits, leaving a larger proportion of recipients who are truly needy as opposed to merely entitled (in their heads and hearts).

Floccina writes:

This is a great post.

One thing that I find interesting about this idea is that for many people Social Security amounts to a transfer of money from their working children to them but the parents being grateful their children, they rather be grateful to FDR or democratic politicians. Once in while you will see a Democrat say with pride that his is the party that brought you all this stuff which is true in a way but no thanks is made to the taxpayers or even the voters. I guess that the system is setup to hide the cost and show the benefits.

jc writes:

Btw, when choosing charities I assume that most of us look for those with pass through rates of 90% or higher.

Does anyone know where I can find current figures regarding the pass through rate of welfare?

Brandon Berg writes:

I said "greedy," not "a hypocrite." Mercer didn't say that, but I see it from leftists all the time. As far as I can tell, no one can object to the welfare state without being smeared by a leftist as either greedy or a hypocrite.

Also, Caplan isn't a welfare recipient. He earns a salary for services rendered to the government. He is in some sense a beneficiary of the welfare state, in that its existence provides an opportunity for him, but that's not the same as being a welfare recipient.

PrometheeFeu writes:


You do realize that professors have to work to earn their salary right? And I don't mean make-work work, but like actually productive work where there are real-life customers who pay for the service provided. I'm not sure that Bryan could be said to benefit from "welfare".

Brandon Berg writes:

The problem with that chart is that the state-level aggregation obscures the fact that at an individual level welfare recipients tend to lean heavily Democratic. It is not valid to infer from that chart that "Conservatives are probably net-recipients of transfers."

In fact, he links to some work by Andrew Gelman that refutes the conclusion you draw from the chart.

Evan writes:

This article by Scott Adams seems relevant. Bryan's probably already seen it, as Robin Hanson plugged it when it was first published, but it has some interesting (not completely serious thoughts):

In reality, fairness is not so much about the actual distribution of loot as it is about the psychology of how you feel about it. That's important to understand because the rich won't give up their cash unless they feel they are getting something in return. And so far, saving the country doesn't seem to be enough of a payoff.

If we accept that the rich can be taxed at a different rate than everyone else, we can also imagine that there could be other differences in how the rich are taxed.....I can think of five benefits that the country could offer to the rich in return for higher taxes: time, gratitude, incentives, shared pain and power.
Suppose we change the tax code so that in return for higher taxes on the rich, we figure out a way to give the rich some form of extra time. The bad version is that anyone who pays taxes at a rate above some set amount gets to use the car pool lane without a passenger. Or perhaps the rich are allowed to park in handicapped-only spaces.
Suppose (bad idea alert) the government makes it a condition that anyone applying for social services has to write a personal thank-you note to a nearby rich person who, according to a central database, hasn't lately received one. Gratitude goes a long way. It's easy to hate the generic overspending of the government. It's harder to begrudge medical care to someone who thanks you personally.
Suppose the tax code is redesigned so that the rich only pay taxes to fund social services, such as health care and social security. This gives the rich an incentive to find ways to reduce the need for those services, which would in turn keep their taxes under control. Perhaps you'd see an explosion of private investment in technologies that make it less expensive to provide health care.
Everyone loves power. I'm guessing that the rich like it more than most people, on average. Another bad idea is to give the rich two votes apiece in any election. That's double the power of other citizens. But don't worry that it will distort election results. There aren't that many rich people, and they are somewhat divided in their opinions, just like the rest of the world. And realistically, is the candidate who gets 51% of the vote always better than the one who gets only 49%? That's a risk I'll take.
Joe writes:

Student loans are a hand out to banks, not students.

My student loans came from a private party, but were federally insured. That means that the taxpayers shoulder all the risk of default, while the bank gets all the interest.

The banks should be sending thank you notes to taxpayers.

Andy writes:

Why limit this to welfare? Why not thank taxpayers for firefighters, police, roads, schools, defense, parks, etc? Surely everyone benefits from at least some publicly provided service.

Since I pay more than the average amount of taxes, I'm fine with this system, since I'll gain more thanks than I give out.

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