Bryan Caplan  

Krugman, Human Weakness, and Desert

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Krugman makes fascinating concessions to David Brooks:
David says,

I don't care how many factory jobs have been lost, it still doesn't make sense to drop out of high school.
True enough. But suppose we apply the same logic to another problem, say obesity:
I don't care how little manual work Americans engage in these days, or how available fast food has become, it still doesn't make sense not to stay at your ideal weight through diet and exercise.
This is also true -- yet few people do this (I don't, although I'll get on the treadmill in a few minutes)...Nobody -- not William Julius Wilson, not Larry Mishel, not yours truly -- denies that the bad effects of reduced opportunity would be much less if people always did what was in their best long-term interests. But people often don't, which is why loss of economic opportunity can be socially as well as economically destructive. That's not crude materialism, it's saying that people are human.

Two questions for Paul, one economic, one moral:

1. If people often imprudently respond to reduced opportunity, they might imprudently respond to increased opportunity as well.  Suppose the government makes welfare payments more generous.  Probably the wisest strategy for the poor would be to (a) take the money to make their lives better now, but (b) keep working hard to permanently escape poverty by finishing school, acquiring job skills, and delaying parenthood.  But how realistic is this?  Won't many succumb to the very "human" temptation to take the money and stop trying to better themselves? 

If this sounds like behavioral econ plus early Charles Murray, it is; Scott Beaulier and I flesh out the argument in detail in our "Behavioral Economics and Perverse Effects of the Welfare State" (Kyklos 2007).

2. When someone drops out of high school, overeats, or fails to exercise, you tell us that their behavior is only "human."  But if a conservative or libertarian objects to paying taxes to help people who make these choices, you get angry.  Question: Why are you so forgiving of people with irresponsible lifestyles, but so outraged by people who don't want to pay taxes to help people with irresponsible lifestyles?  This seems morally perverse.  If you're going to single anyone out for condemnation, it should be the person who behaves irresponsibly in the first place, not the complete stranger who asks, "How is this my fault?"

It's tempting to insist, "We're all sinners."  But the hard fact is that there's a lot of variance in the population.  People with extremely responsible lifestyles are just as human as anyone else.  They're not gods, just mortals who do the right thing.  We should hold them up as role models, instead of attacking them if they complain that they're taxed enough already.

P.S. For more, see my recent debate with Karl Smith.



COMMENTS (56 to date)
Crimson-blue writes:

Doesn't this argument miss the point that despite moral hazard, society is better with these social programs than without, both quantitatively (e.g. GDP growth) and qualitatively (e.g. Hunger, disease, mobility, longevity).

The potential for moral hazard on an anecdotal, microeconomic level is outweighed by the macroeconomic impact when deployed accross the full spectrum of the population.

Too often, this discussion devolves into a Manichaean debate that cites statistically insignificant anecdotes (or worse makes them up). Surely, no one in economics seriously denies the existence of public goods (nonrival, nonexclusive) and externalities. It would be much more constructive to admit that we are arguing about a matter of degree rather than a binary decision. If one denies the existence of public goods or believes they only apply to arbitrary categories like defense or highway construction, then their ideas should be labeled as such - ignorant/rudimentary or arbitrary.

J Storrs Hall writes:

How long is it going to take people to entertain the possibility, simply for the sake of argument, that Krugman is not a moron? That he knows what the effects of the perverse incentives he pushes are -- and that's what he really wants?

Robert Fellner writes:

A great pair of questions to ask. I'm very eager to hear the answers!

Mark Michael writes:

I think Krugman has another motivation for wanting to maintain generous government welfare programs, despite their track record of major deterioration in social behavior of their recipients. It's simply to help justify big central government; that's his world view. A pre-Great Society America which provided welfare almost exclusively by private charities, local (county) governments, and some state government removes justification for the current massive scope of federal domestic programs. If the feds don't take care of the truly poor and downtrodden, why should they have a plethora of subsidies for farmers, exporters, you-name-it middle class groups -- which have the ability to take care of themselves? (Calvin Coolidge: "The government cannot relieve from toil. The normal must take care of themselves!" I'd surmise that was cw in pre-New Deal America. In fact, FDR said AFDC should be limited to widows and orphans, and not reward the morally promiscuous. That stricture ended in the 1960s generally, sooner in some states.)

Of course, the social statistics measuring behavior circa pre-Great Society vs. today show a tight correlation between their deterioration and increasing federal government welfare outlays. For example, in 1965, 5% of births were to single mothers; today it is 42%. In 1966, 14% of the population lived below the official poverty level; today it's over 15%, despite substantial gains in labor productivity and income over those 4+ decades. Single-parent households comprise about 30% of those families living in poverty today. The number of single-parent households has risen substantially, thanks to the high out-of-wedlock birthrates since the 1970s. In 1965, there were about 250,000 incarcerated in all our prisons, jails, & lockups. Today it's about 2.3 million. Adjusting for population growth, we have 7 times as many incarcerated. Something like 70% of those incarcerated were born to single mothers - living in those impoverished households. The crime rate for those raised in single-parent households is over 4 times higher than those raised in married-couple families.

"Correlation doesn't prove causality" of course. But there were an extensive set of negative income tax (NIT) experiments between 1969 and the late 1970s that showed that simply giving poor families a "negative income tax" resulted in larger family breakups than those receiving traditional welfare. That strongly suggested that giving the poor cash payments did indeed tempt many of them to indulge in less than prudent, delaying of gratification lifestyles. That's why they dropped the NIT in the 1970s. Now, it's (sort of) made a comeback with the EITC, but that has the wrinkle of going only to the working poor. I believe you must have a job to qualify for the EITC. I still suspect that the EITC does result in a higher percentage of poor lifestyle choices, just maybe not as many as the original NIT idea.

Jeff writes:

Bravo, Bryan.

Mercer writes:

Most government spending goes to seniors and the military but you would think otherwise from reading Brooks and Caplan.

Murray seemed most upset with men who don't marry when I saw him on TV. What welfare spending goes to these men? I don't know of any. I know of huge amounts of government money to help out bankers - who now claim they are "taxed enough already".

Caplan and Brooks criticize high school dropouts. High school completion rates have not changed much for decades. What has changed are marriage rates. I think to understand why marriage rates have changed the income earned by men and women is a big factor. Murray seems to think what the upper class preaches to society is more important then the relative incomes of men and women.

lwaaks writes:

This brings to mind a quote from Jean Francois Revel (paraphasing): They [liberals]have a boundless indulgence towards the many and a pitiless ferocity towards the few.

gwm writes:

Great post. Please correct the spelling of "dessert" in the title.

[The spelling is correct. It's a form of the word "deserve." One "s". But perhaps after reading the post one might also enjoy some dessert.--Econlib Ed.]

Robert Bell writes:

I'm just sort of wondering what "being human" means.

If the rewards to work go down, then in some cases we expect people to work less, as Krugman describes here, but also as Greg Mankiw talked about with respect to higher taxes on the rich. The alternative is that in response to declining rewards to work, people will work *harder* to maintain their standard of living.

Yancey Ward writes:

Mercer asked:

Murray seemed most upset with men who don't marry when I saw him on TV. What welfare spending goes to these men? I don't know of any.

I tend to think of the subsidization of single motherhood to also be a kind of welfare for men who reproduce without marriage.

Invisible Backhand writes:

Question: Why are you so forgiving of people with irresponsible lifestyles, but so outraged by people who don't want to pay taxes to help people with irresponsible lifestyles?

Because they will soon pick up guns to go after the people who don't want to pay taxes.

Floccina writes:

@Mercer

I have always thought that main reason for the existence of Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and Government schools was to aid the poor. It seems to me that for most people how make above median life time income and a substantial percentage of those below median do not need those programs but that the programs are kept for the sake of the poor.

chipotle writes:

Someone should offer a significant sum of money to the charity of Krugman's choice if Professor K. would be willing to answer any and all of Professor Caplan's policy/philosophy-related questions for 1 year.

ertdfg writes:

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Arthur Felter writes:
It's tempting to insist, "We're all sinners."

Yeah, we're all sinners all right; but I pay the consequences for my sins. I find it morally perverse for me to be responsible for someone else's sins - and equally perverse for someone else to be responsible for mine!

RPLong writes:
Doesn't this argument miss the point that despite moral hazard, society is better with these social programs than without, both quantitatively (e.g. GDP growth) and qualitatively (e.g. Hunger, disease, mobility, longevity).

So long as you're touting quantitative evidence, kindly point toward the evidence conclusively demonstrating that social programs more effectively tackle "Hunger, disease, mobility, longevity" than an unhampered market economy in no uncertain terms.

And freedom? Is society better off with freedom quantitatively or qualitatively? Or, is it merely public goods and negative externalities that matter in these discussions.

You may be missing a great deal of the depth in Caplan's arguments.

PJR writes:

Why do people (republicans & libertarians) object to government money flowing to poor people who are obviously "irresponsible"?

(1) Is it because they believe that their taxes would be lower if the government stopped helping out the "welfare queens"?

Elimination of welfare (the money that goes to the poor, irresponsible people but not the money that goes to the elderly)will not solve the deficit problem. So if that is how they are looking to lower their taxes, then they need to search elsewhere.

(2) Or are they morally opposed to lazy, irresponsible people getting money from the government?

Moral opposition to lazy, irresponsible people receiving money from the government is not a bad thing. However, lurking in the moral opposition to welfare is an unstated presumption that poor means "lazy and irresponsible." In the midst of our middle class comforts we have forgotten "[to] not judge a person until you have walked a mile in their shoes."

Tom West writes:

It is simply the responsibility of capability. Those who fortune has allowed to be capable enough to succeed and strong enough to avoid the traps of laziness and irresponsibility have a moral obligation to aid those not so fortunate.

Of course the ire of liberals like myself is directed at those who are capable, but refuse their moral responsibilities. Unlike the lazy and irresponsible, whose nature has not given them the ability to do any better, you, who are both smart and strong, deliberately *refuse* to meet your moral obligations.

Nature has provided the poor their excuse. You, sir, have none.

:-)

More seriously, I have grown up with the understanding that my ability to study hard and work hard is a blessing, like good health, not some great personal virtue. Given the advantages of decent enough natural talents, middle-class loving parents, and ample educational opportunities, I would expect no less. But those expectations are confined to myself and my family. When looking at others who failed, it seems the height of arrogance to assume that I would have succeeded had I their disadvantages.

JCR writes:

Mercer,

Defense, as a percentage of total US gov't outlays is at a historic low: 23%. In fact, that's the lowest it's ever been (23%). From the founding of the Republic to the year the Civil War began, it was about 43%, on average. I think this was because the early federal government considered protection of its citizens against internal and external physical threats important. Now, not so much, in some circles...perhaps a result of the US military being too effective for its own good. Whatever.

PJR,

However, lurking in the moral opposition to welfare is an unstated presumption that poor means "lazy and irresponsible." In the midst of our middle class comforts we have forgotten "[to] not judge a person until you have walked a mile in their shoes."

*sigh*

I consider myself "conservative" because that philosophy's core principals are closer to my own than the "progressive" ones (the latter being anything but "liberal"). I also hew to the conservative side because I think it best resembles the foundation of adulthood, i.e., internalizing the truth of behavior having consequences and that one should accept whatever latter that arise out of the former.
That in no way prevents me from feeling compassion for the unfortunate or incapable and doing something about that and for them...enthusiastically and repeatedly. Conversely, I prefer to refrain from acting out of sympathy for someone, who should have known better, to: drop out of high school, get pregnant out of wedlock, binge drink, overeat, start/keep smoking or engage in a whole host of temptations no one forced them to do.

I'm sorry, but I resent having my income--money I'd prefer to spend on my family for food, clothing, shelter, education and medical care--confiscated for those who have chosen...wrongly.

I honestly believe we should show compassion for those who honestly got thumped by life but little sympathy for those who've just taken the wrong turn every time they come to one of life's crossroads.

In the first case, the response is based on, well, charity, Christian love, whatever you want to call it. The latter is based on power...the smug sense that the recipient is powerless and the benefactor is all-powerful...and I don't think that's a good way to model a healthy polis in the long run.

PapayaSF writes:

Way back in psychology class, I was taught that (as a general rule) father love was conditional, but mother love was unconditional. In other words, the love of your father depended on your actions, but your mother would love you no matter what.

It's long seemed to me that many political issues break down along these lines. Conservatives and even libertarians are generally not opposed to helping the "deserving poor," (a term long out of fashion), but often object to helping the "undeserving poor" (i.e. the poor who got that way through their own actions). Liberals and progressives, on the other hand, make no such distinctions, preferring to point fingers at social forces outside of individual control. Thus, in their view, government should help those who need it, regardless of their actions.

David McCune writes:

I recommend the upcoming book by Prof Jonathan Haidt (UVA), called "The Righteous Mind". It goes directly to the psychological underpinnings of the left- and right-of-center moral philosophy, and uses experimental data to show why that may lead to more hate of the right by the left than the other way around. The short answer is that those on the right tend to have a broader "moral palate" and can appreciate, even when disagreeing with, leftist morality. Those on the left appear to have much less appreciation of the right's morality and view it as illegitimate.

I saw him speak, and his talk was riveting. He's a rare researcher who appears to be honest enough to change his mind when the data conflicted with his preconceptions. He was also kind enough to share and advance copy, which is how I got to read it early.

Jeff writes:
Elimination of welfare (the money that goes to the poor, irresponsible people but not the money that goes to the elderly)will not solve the deficit problem.

Maybe not at the federal level, but remember that a lot of social safety net programs like food stamps and Medicaid are funded (at least partially) at the state level, and there are an awful lot of state budgets that are oozing red ink.

Also, the idea that cutting one particular kind of spending won't solve our deficit problem in and of itself is irrelevant. I'm reminded of that scene from The Wire where it's revealed to the mayor that the Baltimore City School system is running a huge deficit:

"How do you lose 54 million dollars?"
"One million at a time."

Brian Macker writes:

"Because they will soon pick up guns to go after the people who don't want to pay taxes"

Really? So how are they going to identify those who "want" from those who don't? If they are too lazy to go to the target range how are they going to win the gunfight? Especially if they cannot afford a decent rifle, or shotgun?

I'm awaiting another comment that is ridiculous as your first.

Brian Macker writes:

"Because they will soon pick up guns to go after the people who don't want to pay taxes"

Really? So how are they going to identify those who "want" from those who don't? If they are too lazy to go to the target range how are they going to win the gunfight? Especially if they cannot afford a decent rifle, or shotgun?

I'm awaiting another comment that is ridiculous as your first.

Costard writes:

Tom... I guess it's a good thing then, that we have such superior folks as yourself? God only knows how the poor would fend for themselves without your beneficence. Perhaps a cotton field and a row of cottages out back, would make it easier for you to fulfill your extraordinarily condescending sort of "responsibility".

PJR writes:
BC writes:
However, lurking in the moral opposition to welfare is an unstated presumption that poor means "lazy and irresponsible."

Citation needed.

Please see Scott Beaulier and Bryan Caplan, "Behavioral Economics and Perverse Effects of the Welfare State" (Kyklos 2007) for a direct statement of my point.

Watch Fox News for the unstated presumption. Libertarians and Republicans want to dismantle the welfare state and reduce taxes. Typically in those same segments they denounce the "irresponsible poor" and complain about the injustice of the responsible paying for the irresponsible.

I am biased. Too many rich, middle class men (of which I am a part) mistake an accident of birth for a life of moral superiority and virtue.

Will writes:

I think the blogfather hit the nail on the head when he commented on this post:

"Well, understand that people who are fat and stupid don’t undermine the power of the political class — they enhance it. People who object to paying taxes, on the other hand, threaten the whole feedlot."

Tom West writes:

make it easier for you to fulfill your extraordinarily condescending sort of "responsibility".

Well, that's the point, isn't it? Not holding people responsible for their misfortunes *is* a form of condescension, but then so is giving up your seat to the elderly.

BC writes:

[Multiple comments removed for supplying false email address. Email the webmaster@econlib.org to request restoring your comments and comment privileges. We'd be happy to publish your comments. A valid email address is nevertheless required to post comments on EconLog and EconTalk.--Econlib Ed.]

Buck Bradley writes:

PJR: It's fine to have a guilty conscience for winning the sperm lottery if that's your thing. Less admirable is the general tendency of well-off white liberals to want to assuage their senselessly-guilty consciences with Other People's Money

Evan M writes:
Of course the ire of liberals like myself is directed at those who are capable, but refuse their moral responsibilities. Unlike the lazy and irresponsible, whose nature has not given them the ability to do any better, you, who are both smart and strong, deliberately *refuse* to meet your moral obligations.
Perhaps those at whom you direct your ire, while they have their strengths, have also been robbed by nature of the sort of compassion needed to write checks to lazy people. After all, everyone has their weaknesses. Perhaps what they need is for you to meet your moral obligation and lend them your understanding and a government program to help them be more compassionate toward the lazy. I mean, that'll totally work, right?
East Bay Jay writes:

"Too many rich, middle class men (of which I am a part) mistake an accident of birth for a life of moral superiority and virtue"

Own Goal.

PJR writes:
"Own Goal."
What?
J.V. writes:

PJR:

I think the objections against government money flowing to poor people are these:

1) Money flowing to a person without merit alters that person's sense of incentive, and creates a vicious circle. You are right to imply that poverty and the need for help are not necessarily permanent conditions, but have we have solved the problem of distinguishing the "permanently unincentivized" class from the "just get me over this hopefully-temporary hump" class?

2) Money flowing from the government to a large class of people creates a dependency upon the government, and therefore a great power within the government. The more that money flows through the government, the greater the quantity of money that flows, and greater the percentages of population which benefit from it, all lead to greater and greater power for the government that controls that flow.

Once the government has put its feeding hand to all the population, which citizen would bite it? And because the idea of government is still one of omniservice, it is possible that a citizen who receives government help in one aspect of life may be unwilling to challenge government on an entirely unrelated aspect, for fear that the first part might dry up.

In other words, we pay our phone bill separately from our gas bill, and both separately from our laundry bill, but we don't pay our Medicare bill separately from our Defense bill, our Food and Drug Safety bill, or our Federal Highway Maintenance bill. Imagine the results of that type of split. And incidentally, as a result of that thought experiment, you may also understand why people are so opposed to so-called Lexus Lanes. Any money not controlled by government is money that cannot be applied as leverage in another, unrelated, part of the balance sheet.

PJR writes:

Jeff...

Total government spending on "welfare" (no pension, medicare, and medicaid included) is less than 10%. State & Local spending on welfare, net of federal government grants, is about 7.5%. States spend around 50% on unemployment and workman's comp.

The bulk of state and local government spending is law enforcement, transportation, health, education, and utilities.
(Source: usgovspending.com)

I just don't see how we can reasonably justify balancing state and local budgets on the back's of the unemployed and disabled.

PJR writes:

JV...

(1) No one is disputing that money handed out to irresponsible, layabout, wastes of space is a bad thing. I question the size of that class of people.

Having said, "no one is disputing...", I will now argue with myself. Why is that person unincentivized? Is the government handout causing that disincentive, their circumstances, their background, or the lack of typical middle class opportunities ?

As I said previously, "do not judge a person until you have walked a mile in their shoes." It is arrogance to think that if you or I were exposed to the exact same set of life circumstances we would've somehow made lemonade out of lemon's.

(2) The poor have typically seen about 10% of total government spending each year, for the rest, see defense, healthcare and the elderly. I don't see the government's power increasing from the money flowing to poor people.

Tim Starr writes:

Cultural evolution works by a synthesis of variation and selection. Liberals favor variation, conservatives favor selection. Liberals equivocate between support for selection & opposition to variation, conservatives do the opposite.

Ixak writes:

An alternate phrasing of Caplan's point can be stated thusly:

"Behold, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed a commandment of yours, but you never gave me a goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this, your son, came, who has devoured your living with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him."

delayna writes:

PJR @ 11:15 PM,

Has anyone said that reducing or eliminating welfare would balance the budget? Or just that it is ridiculous to subsidize irresponsibility by putting further burdens on the responsible? (When the country is prosperous, enabling those who won't take care of themselves is cruel to the poor. In our current poor economy, it's cruel to everyone.)

Ixak at 6:32 AM,

I missed the press conference where the unwed mothers and drug addicts apologized for their prodigality and begged forgiveness. Please link.

Jeff writes:
Unlike the lazy and irresponsible, whose nature has not given them the ability to do any better, you, who are both smart and strong, deliberately *refuse* to meet your moral obligations.

Nature has provided the poor their excuse. You, sir, have none.

What if I'm simply too heartless to care about the plight of the lazy and the irresponsible to want help them? Is that a valid "excuse?" Is not callousness a trait that's largely inborn like laziness or stupidity?

Also, why come after me? The poor, you seem to concede, are too lazy and irresponsible to avoid poverty. Your solution to this is to forcibly confiscate money and resources from the productive class and use it to subsidize the non-productive. Wouldn't it be more equitable to force the lazy and irresponsible to work and leave me, the innocent bystander, alone? Why shouldn't the target of your plan to use the coercive power of the state to help the poor simply be the poor themselves?

Mean Granny writes:

You play, you pay. It's called Taking Responsibility For Your Own Life. If you want to ride a motorcycle withoug a helmet, that's your business. However, I do object strenuously to you expecting me to pay your medical bills for the rest of your life when you splatter your head on the pavement.

If you want to quit high school and get your girlfriend pregnant, more power to you. Just don't expect me to pay for your poor choices. Take Responsibility For Your Own Life.

Why is this such a terrible, horrible idea? Grow up, people.

Tom West writes:

Perhaps those at whom you direct your ire, while they have their strengths, have also been robbed by nature of the sort of compassion needed to write checks to lazy people.

:-)

Jeff writes:

PJR,

Taking your statistics at face value, I still don't see how you can laugh off over half a trillion in combined spending on welfar programs by saying "well, we spend a lot more on other stuff." So? Wasteful, coercive redistribution is objectionable in any amount!

If I go to a restaurant and leave feeling I've been overcharged for the food and drinks I received for a $50 meal, and then I buy a new washing machine a week later and find out that the appliance store mistakenly charged me for a pricier, more deluxe model than what I actually got by about $200 for it, does that make me feel any better about having overpaid at the restaurant a week ago? Not really. It makes me think I need to find a new neighborhood to shop/dine in.

Also, explain to me how it makes sense not to include Medicaid in that little percentage calculation. It's a program that's available exclusively to the poor/indigent, no? It's funded by taxpayers, no? Maybe it's a non-cash benefit, but it's still basically a welfare program, no?

PJR writes:

Buck Bradley...I do not feel guilty about winning the sperm lottery. I just have a broader perspective about the world.

----
"Lazy, irresponsible" poor people are the conservative boogyman. Conservatives demonize this nebulous, poorly defined class of people to attack the entire social insurance safety net.

Who is in this class of people?

The general category of welfare (not including Social Security and Medicare) accounts for less than 5% of GDP and less than 10% of government spending at all levels. The bulk of most welfare is unemployment and worker's compensation. Of that share, the amount going to potentially "undeserving" people is less than half (and quite possibly lower, depending upon the fine grain categories).

Will conservatives stop complaining about welfare and money going to the "undeserving" if we just stopped this tiny social insurance subsidy (2.5% of GDP)? But to be clear, conservatives are using the flow of a tiny fraction of a small percentage of government money to truly irresponsible people as representative of the entire system.

PJR writes:

Jeff...is the general objection with social insurance or social insurance given to the irresponsible?

Is all coercive redistribution wasteful or just coercive redistribution to irresponsible poor people wasteful? And do you think all poor people, especially those receiving government assistance, are irresponsible?

delayna writes:

PJR @ 11:50 am:

The Feds have averaged 20% of GDP in taxes for the last few decades. I'm not sure how 5% of GDP spent on welfare can be ten percent of Fed expenditures.

Whether it is 5% of GDP or 2.5%, it is still a heck of a lot of money. Looks like the War on Poverty is a hopeless quagmire, and we should withdraw the troops. I will submit a timetable if you like.

(If you want, you can put in an extra 2.5% of your income to the cause. Money, mouth, yada yada.)

Kent Siegel writes:

Dean Vernon Wormer: "Fat, drunk and stupid is no way to go through life, son."

PJR writes:

delayna@12:40

I am including federal, state, and local in my calculations for taxes and welfare.

PJR writes:

delayna...I ask you the same questions I posed to Jeff.

Is the general objection with social insurance or social insurance given to the irresponsible?

Is all coercive redistribution wasteful or just coercive redistribution to irresponsible poor people wasteful? And do you think all poor people, especially those receiving government assistance, are irresponsible?

delayna writes:

My objection is to social insurance, period. SS (to use one example) was sold as insurance, but it is insolvent, a Ponzi scheme that cannot live up to the promises it has made. If a private company sold it as a product, the officers of the company would be in jail. No, I don't know how to fix the mess we are currently in. It would have been a (relative) cinch thirty years ago--except for a bunch of politicians having to risk their power.

Coercive redistribution is stealing by having the government point the gun for you. Coercive redistribution to the irresponsible is the same, and even worse.

Because:

Welfare doesn't help poor people, it keeps them poor. Work, thrift, education--anything that can help to pull someone from poverty to working class--is actively discouraged by welfare.

Charity is a virtuous act, intended to help someone. Knowing that the money taken from me for welfare payments is as likely to harm someone as to help them just makes me feel worse about it.

Eugene writes:

@PJR,

If fixing the "mistakes"(not sure what the right word is?) of "sperm lottery" is something that government should force on it's citizens then I propose that we take this idea even further - I demand that all attractive women must be required to have at least 10% (number you quote government spends on "poor") of their sexual partners be very unattractive men (losers of the sperm lottery) and those shall be designated by the government. If those women complain then they are "immoral". If they refuse they should be sent to jail. I don't see how you can dislike this idea.

PJR writes:

Eugene...not a bad idea.

Eugene writes:

I think so too. Although it's not exactly a fair comparison. Attractive women will still be equally attractive after performing their "moral duties" whereas my bank account gets a lot smaller after I perform my moral duties by paying taxes.

Evan M writes:
Ixak writes:

An alternate phrasing of Caplan's point can be stated thusly:

"Behold, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed a commandment of yours, but you never gave me a goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this, your son, came, who has devoured your living with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him."


That's a good analogy, but perhaps for reasons you didn't intend. By the time the Prodigal Son returned, he had already changed. Throwing a little shindig to celebrate the return of the Prodigal Son did not encourage him to go back and live a bad life and the father knew it. I think a more telling part of the story was that the father did not send assistance to his son while he was out living the wild life. It was because he had to suffer the consequences of his bad decisions that he was forced to humble himself and change. If someone had subsidized his riotous living and cushioned him from the consequences, he probably would have kept it up and not returned. If the father had said, "Well, he just wasn't endowed with the sense of responsibility I was blessed with, so it's my moral obligation to make things easier for him" the results would have been decidedly immoral.
Tracy W writes:

PJR:

In the midst of our middle class comforts we have forgotten "[to] not judge a person until you have walked a mile in their shoes."

Which is entirely sensible. Us humans are social beings, we have to judge our fellow humans, even though we can never walk a mile in their shoes (except literally).

For example, voting for a representative is impossible for anyone who refuses to judge. Or consider the case of someone suspected of murder, what does it mean to refuse to judge them? And how would refusing to judge them do any good, as opposed to simultaneously encouraging murders, and harming innocent people wrongly suspected? To move to more day-to-day issues, how could you possibly decide whether to take a job without judging the people you will be working with on such issues as "do they keep their promises" and "will I find them stimulating"?

The advice not to judge people sounds good on a very superficial reading, but a bit of judgement indicates its impracticality. I suspect that most people, middle class or otherwise, have not forgotten your "principle", they've instead thought about what it implies and rejected it on practical grounds.

Tracy W writes:

Tom West:

Those who fortune has allowed to be capable enough to succeed and strong enough to avoid the traps of laziness and irresponsibility have a moral obligation to aid those not so fortunate.

I hardly think that aiding lazy and irresponsible people will assist said people in becoming strong enough to avoid the traps of laziness and irresponsibility.

I have grown up with the understanding that my ability to study hard and work hard is a blessing, like good health, not some great personal virtue.

I'm not sure what the point of this statement is. Success depends on actual work, not merely on the ability to do so. All the ability in the world won't do you any good if you don't use it.

And how do you know which other people can't study hard and work hard, and which other people can but simply chose not to? How about if the ability, and the decision, to study hard and work hard, is something that can be built up over time, like muscles? So you start off with the ability to study a very little bit, you then chose to study a very little bit, you become better at making yourself study a very little bit, so your ability to study moves up to being the ability to study a little bit, repeat, until you have the ability to study hard? After all, that's how people gain the ability to lift great weights, by repeatedly lifting weights they can lift and continually pushing their boundaries. Abilities are not invariant to past work. It strikes me that your ability to study hard and work hard may well be the result of some great personal virtue (I know I'm not very good at making myself study hard and/or work hard, I have to use all sorts of tricks to accomplish such things).

When looking at others who failed, it seems the height of arrogance to assume that I would have succeeded had I their disadvantages.

I think what matters here is the definition of disadvantages. You earlier said that "those who fortune has allowed to be ... strong enough to avoid the traps of laziness and irresponsibility" have a moral obligation to aid those not so fortunate. I think that most of us who emphasis personal responsibility consider that assisting those who fall into the traps of laziness and irresponsibility is a disadvantage to said people, that it makes said people less capable.

I don't know about you, but I know people who have grown up knowing that they would inherit wealth (from rich relatives), and never had to work. They typically don't succeed, they never settle to a job. I know enough about my own tendencies to laziness to suspect that in that situation I would be the same, I would likely have not accomplished what I have.

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