Bryan Caplan  

Reply to Bill Dickens on Poverty: Part 1

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Household Incomes Declined Dur... Thoughts on Dickens...
Since Bill Dickens' last reply to me is essay-length, my plan is to write a series of relatively short replies, and spread them out over the next month.  Here's Part 1.  By default, Bill's in blockquotes, I'm not.
You subscribe to two central right-wing memes: government coddles the poor and won't make them face the tough choices everyone else does, and welfare recipients are overwhelmingly lazy and undeserving.
"Overwhelmingly lazy" is simultaneously too strong and too narrow.  I do think that the average welfare recipient is much lazier than the average non-welfare recipient.  But this is just a special case of a more general criticism: the average welfare recipient is much more irresponsible than the average non-welfare recipient.

To see where I'm coming from, consider this passage from the excellent Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood Before Marriage:
Conflicts over money do not usually erupt simply because the man cannot find a job or because he doesn't earn as much as someone with better skills or more education.  Money usually becomes an issue because he seems unwilling to keep at a job for any length of time, usually because of issues related to respect.  Some of the jobs he can get don't pay enough to give him the self-respect he feels he needs, and others require him to go along with unpleasant customers and coworkers, and to maintain a submissive attitude toward the boss.
Complaints like these are standard in the ethnographic literature.  The story's more psychologically complex than pure "laziness."  But the evidence supports a strong version of the "right-wing memes" your criticize.

Bill continues:
Anyone with firsthand experience dealing with a wide range of the poor or those receiving government assistant (with the later being only a small subset of the former) knows these two things to be false.
I'd say rather that people with this first-hand experience eschew words like "irresponsible."  But that is the correct English word for what ethnographies like Promises I Can Keep reveal.
Further, I think your view on the causes of poverty and your view of the culpability of the impoverished for their circumstances are internally contradictory.
My full view is that the First World poor have a long list of problems.  Some - like low IQ - aren't really their fault.  Others - like irresponsible behavior - are entirely their fault.  Doesn't this mean that their poverty is only partially their fault?  Not really.  If they acted responsibly, they probably wouldn't be poor despite their other disadvantages.  That is sufficient for a person to deserve his fate.

By analogy, consider a low-IQ, lazy student.  Both traits hurt his classroom performance.  However, if he did his homework, he would pass your class.  I say if he doesn't do his homework, his failure in your class is entirely his fault.
Even Charles Murray acknowledged that beliefs in both the importance of cognitive ability and its genetic basis is grounds for progressive taxation. It is no leap at all to the notion that the poor are not culpable for their circumstances.
Murray's Rawlsian outlook is one of the main perspectives my poverty book will attack.  You know as well as I do that high heritability does not logically imply immutability, so why do you repeat Murray's argument here?  Furthermore, the mere fact that someone is not culpable for his circumstances hardly implies that total strangers are culpable.

Let's start with the absurd notion that better behavior is a "...neglected remedy..." Neglected by whom? Certainly not the poor themselves.

"Certainly"?  The mere fact that the poor engaged in irresponsible behavior shows that they previously "neglected" the remedy of better behavior.  The mere fact that the poor continue to engage in irresponsible behavior shows that they currently "neglect" the remedy of better behavior.  "Neglecting X" means "paying insufficient attention to X," not "being unaware of X's existence."

When I worked on Clinton's welfare reform taskforce I was struck by a number of things, but one thought that would never have occurred to me was that instructing people in the consequences of bad behavior would have the slightest impact on their condition.

Which is precisely the reaction you should expect when you offer wise advice to irresponsible people.

I must have spoken with, in the neighborhood of, 100 welfare recipients when I was working on the reform (and lots more people with precarious lives when interviewing people for a number of labor market projects). Overwhelmingly those on public assistance were full of regret and/or a sense of hopelessness that they are fated to their condition. They know they should have worked harder in school, they know they should be working to support their family, they know it would be better if their children's father was there to help support their kids.

I don't think they're sorry for their behavior.  I think they're sorry they're experiencing the predictable consequences of their behavior.  I see them the same way I'd see a serial adulterer enduring a hellish divorce: "Sure you're sorry.  Sorry you got caught!  Sow the wind, reap the whirlwind."

There is no shortage of hectoring from society, welfare caseworkers, family members, and the media. Consider that even before the passage of TANF most women on welfare worked at least some during every year (on or off the books). Most welfare mothers are not drug abusers or alcoholics (when they have been tested only a tiny fraction fail).

My immediate question is: How long do drugs and alcohol stay in their systems?  Promises I Can Keep explains that a lot of poor women permanently quit alcohol and drug abuse after getting pregnant.  But prior substance abuse still seemed to be an important cause of their present woes.  In any case, there's little question that most welfare mothers repeatedly had unprotected sex when neither they nor their partners were capable of supporting a child.

A lot had their children with a husband or boyfriend they had hoped to marry.

Quite right.  However, they also generally select young, irresponsible, macho men who are plainly unsuitable for marriage or fatherhood.

Bryan, there is one thing I really think you ought to do before you write this book and that is to spend some time with people who are receiving state benefits and the wider group of poor who do not receive benefits but remain poor. If you do I think you will find it very hard to believe that these people are unaware of the consequences of their actions and that they aren't, overwhelmingly, trying to make their lives work. 

My whole point is that they engage in irresponsible behavior even though they are "aware of the consequences of their actions."  Indeed, their awareness is what makes their behavior irresponsible!

Hypothetical for Bill: Imagine the two of us spent a few weeks interviewing people on welfare.  Can you really imagine that I would ever concede that an alcoholic is "trying to make his life work"?  Would I ever concede that a poor woman who repeatedly has unprotected sex with her drug-dealing boyfriend is "trying to make her life work"?  You know me too well.  I wouldn't denounce anyone to his face.  But once you and I were alone, you can imagine my sarcasm: "Oh they're trying sooooo hard." 

Maybe I'm wrong to think this way.  But it's not for lack of first-hand experience.



COMMENTS (43 to date)
Hume writes:

Bryan,

I do not know what you mean by “irresponsible” and “lazy”; for both concepts it can be asked “in terms of what?” So I wonder: is it irresponsible to be a drug dealer? Why or why not? If it is, then it seems that the legal/political order plays a constitutive role in many of the determinants of “the responsible”, but if this is the case, than it seems odd to say that the legal/political order must itself reflect what is the responsible vs. the irresponsible. In many cases, being responsible seems to be related to an assessment of risks: some actions are deemed “irresponsible” because they are unreasonably risky (this aspect can also be seen in the example of the drug dealer above). How do you determine such unreasonable behavior? Is an entrepreneur necessarily irresponsible because he/she departs from the standards used in the “normal” assessment of risks? Is a worker irresponsible in seeking and obtaining a certain occupation with little job security? Why? What is “risky” that makes something “irresponsible”? I wonder, then, whether when you write “[i]f they acted responsibly, they probably wouldn't be poor despite their other disadvantages. That is sufficient for a person to deserve his fate”, you are smuggling in a conception of the unreasonable that assesses risk by outcomes rather than ex ante decision-making and, most importantly, individual circumstances. Importantly, you take these standards to apply to specific instances of decision-making without recognizing that particular decisions take place within a complete life. To analyze risk it is necessary to analyze all aspects of the person and the circumstances. So when you write “consider a low-IQ, lazy student. Both traits hurt his classroom performance. However, if he did his homework, he would pass your class. I say if he doesn't do his homework, his failure in your class is entirely his fault”, you seem to think that the decision not to do homework is unaffected by, for example, his need to work a full-time job in order to provide food for his family. So you assess risky and irresponsible behavior without a full appreciation of opportunity costs and the costs/benefits involved in the decision. Also, I wonder whether your implicit views on risk are to some extent guilty of Hindsight Bias and/or the Illusion of Skill and Validity (see Kahneman, Thinking Fast and Slow).

To follow up on this point about the Irresponsible. We are asking, “irresponsible in terms of what?” The first point above was in regards to the standard that is relevant. There is a second aspect of this question: irresponsible in terms of *which* abilities, skills, etc.? We cannot make judgments about behavior without first understanding the nature of the activities in question. So it is presumably irresponsible to take drugs in hoping to develop the skills necessary for, e.g., NASCAR or a career in law. But what about the skills necessary for, e.g., writing poetry, alternative rock music, a good short-story, or a [Tarantino-esque] Indy film? Should we then determine The Responsible by the standard of what it is responsible for this individual to seek out, and determining this by first assessing the abilities of the individual under consideration? But when we focus on what skills and abilities are relevant, we cannot but notice that these skills—like a low IQ—are themselves not the fault of the individuals concerned. We are now left with standards of The Responsible and The Irresponsible that are incapable of universalization or standardized application: one person is The Responsible by pursuing certain activities while another person is The Irresponsible by pursuing the exact same activities. If that is the case, then we cannot but wonder the extent to which the contingent and blameless aspects of the world (e.g., one’s IQ) are playing a determinative role in assigning responsibility.

Similarly with regards to the lazy: lazy in terms of what? For example, is someone lazy by seeking to exploit comparative advantage? Is someone lazy for seeking to do that which it takes least effort to accomplish? Does this then depend on one’s natural abilities? How do we determine the proper scale of opportunity costs? What abilities are relevant in determining this scale? Or is The Lazy simply that person who did not do enough to obtain success, despite the theoretical possibility to do more? [note that if the former is the standard, anyone who seeks to follow the path determined by their natural abilities is by definition The Lazy]. So it seems that (the blameless) natural abilities play a similar role to that of the legal/political order in determining the standards by which we make judgments of The Irresponsible and The Lazy.

Brian Tracey writes:

The mere fact that this dialog is underway confirms what a sad state of affairs our big brother's have created.

Fault aside, isn't it clear yet that Milton had it quite right? The more you subsidize any behavior, the more you'll have of it? And the more you tax a behavior, the less you'll have of it? So, I have a great idea, lets tax hard work, savings and investments and lets subsidize single, teenage pregnancies! Duh, my niece with 3 babies spawned by 3 different males is testimony to what a great idea Dickens has...

If only "it" paid enough, virtually all of us would be anywhere but at work. I readily admit it - I'd happily spend my days fishing, loafing and procreating, but damn it, "fishing, loafing and procreating don't bring in enough to keep my wife happy.

Bill Dickens lives in a fantasy world. While I doubt is even worth your intellectual energies, please Bryan, beat Bill's delusions/illusions to a pulp.

Randy writes:

@Hume,

Re; "I do not know what you mean by “irresponsible” and “lazy”; for both concepts it can be asked “in terms of what?”"

Certainly it can be asked, but why? Bryan knows what he means. I know what he means. And, having some experience with those in question, I can say with some confidence that they know what he means.

Re; "...determining the standards by which we make judgments".

I think this is the core issue. By default, the standards should be personal for those who choose whether or not to provide assistance. Political programs take that choice away from the individual and hand it to politicians.

The ghost of Bill Hicks writes:

Wow.

Are you saying that the poor are genetically inclined to be lazy and so we should round up the little cracker spawn / future crimnals at birth? What would we do for reality tv?!

Or that this laziness is a product of their upbringing and experiences? Is this their fault or do we all take a bit of the responsibility?

There's a fair bit of luck involved in either theory.

Bryan, I'd be interested in knowing if looking back on your life you could see any circumstances whereby you could have ended up hopeless, on the dole with cheap whiskey and special brew your only solace? It's not immediately relevant to the discussion but would give a bit of context as to where your coming from?

I'm not saying your conclusions are wrong only that it seems a little like judging after the car crash has happened rather than looking to see how we can prevent it from happening again. There's already a lot of research out there on how early experience can have considerable impact on later life.

To me the only difference between a drunk on the dole and the princes is money, privilege and the drunk on the dole costs me considerably less!

Arthur B. writes:

I agree with your overall point, but I think the distinction you're making between IQ and conscientiousness isn't particularly relevant and weakens the argument. A high time preference, low conscientiousness, low IQ are all traits.

If you're simply making the case that the poor are irresponsible, you don't need to get into normative considerations about "fault".

Taeyoung writes:
Bryan, there is one thing I really think you ought to do before you write this book and that is to spend some time with people who are receiving state benefits and the wider group of poor who do not receive benefits but remain poor.

I think this is deeply, deeply naive. Spending time working with the indigent in pro bono legal cases has not made them any more sympathetic in my eyes. And the experience offers plenty of fodder for the "irresponsibility" critique. They regularly duck your calls, even though you're trying to help them. And casual dishonesty -- to themselves as much as anyone, I think -- is a problem in preparing cases. Sometimes it is difficult just to get a basic, consistent narrative out of them.

Mathew writes:

A few things,
1. Conscientiousness and time preference are inheritable traits as well.

2. Why is asking someone with inherently low conscientiousness to stay at a job any different than asking someone with a low IQ to solve differential calculus equations?

3. Even though time preference and conscientiousness are somewhat fixed they are fixed based an a variance from the cultural mean. Some of what people like Murray are worried about is the fall of the cultural mean.

4. It is not very likely that the cultural mean for conscientiousness will move upward in a world of increasing convenience and technology.

5. Therefore the only way to increase the mean is by shifting the bell curve of variance. We do this with genetic engineering, Embryo sorting and selection.

6. The truth about the poor in the west is that they mostly don't have the problems of poverty, but rather the problems of affluence.

7. Immigrants come to this country with nothing, but they don't have low conscientiousness, they rarely stay poor.

8. In diving your score is determined not only by how well you dive, but the difficulty of the dive you choose. Irresponsibility needs to be measured the same way. When Bill says "there is something very right about you", he makes his strongest point.

Luke G. writes:
he seems unwilling to keep at a job for any length of time, usually because of issues related to respect. Some of the jobs he can get don't pay enough to give him the self-respect he feels he needs, and others require him to go along with unpleasant customers and coworkers, and to maintain a submissive attitude toward the boss.

Wow. What a painful quote--this summarizes my 32-year-old brother, who's never been able to hold onto a job for more than 18 months, all too well.

sieben writes:

http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/bdm.588/pdf

Research on state lotteries finds that low-income individuals spend a higher percentage of their income on lottery tickets than do wealthier individuals (Brinner & Clotfelter, 1975; Clotfelter & Cook, 1987, 1989; Livernois, 1987; Spiro, 1974; Suits, 1977), a pattern highlighted by the statistic that households with an income of less than $10 000 spend, on average, approximately 3% of their income on the lottery (Clotfelter, Cook, Edell, & Moore, 1999). Some studies even find higher absolute demand for lottery tickets among low-income populations (Clotfelter et al., 1999; Hansen, Miyazaki, & Sprott, 2000; Hansen, 1995).

Playing the lottery is a choice?

I found this study while looking for expenditures on drugs/alcohol in poor households. My gut is that 10% of their income can be traced to truly useless habits, and that upwards of 20% is allocated inefficiently to cell phone plans and $10 DVDs.

Dan Hill writes:

People either have sufficient mental capability to be considered adults, free to do as they choose and to take responsibility for the consequences of their actions, or they don't in which case we need to treat them as we treat children - not fully responsible but not fully free. If you are not ready to let me restrict these people's rights and freedoms then stop telling me that I am somehow responsible for them.

Ken B writes:

With posts this entertaining I'm not even going to miss Arnold.

When I taught high school my favourite student was one who had become a father at 13. I had him in grade 11. He really was improving his life. He had a part time job to help pay for the kid. He was in for extra help or to do problems every free period. He had an awesome work ethic, but struggled to make Cs. He stands out I think for being atypical. If all welfare recipents were like this Bryan would be way wrong. Anyone really believe that though?

ajb writes:

What Dan Hill said is absolutely spot on. Dickens' views make it even MORE imperative to accept traditional notions of control of behavior, including shaming, discipline in school, societal punishments beyond the verbal, etc. Yet what is his answer? More variations on welfare, transfers, preferential treatment, etc.

The MORE you believe the delinquent poor can't help themselves, the less they should have the full privileges of citizenship, especially if they want aid.

Philippe Bélanger writes:

Maybe I'm misunderstanding, but you seem to take a moralizing approach to welfare (other people are not imputable for the poors' laziness, ect.). These moral arguments are no response to the classical utilitarian arguments that there is a diminishing marginal value of money, and that taking a dollar from the rich and giving it to the poor is a pareto improvment.

You can reframe these moral arguments as bad incentive arguments (i.e. welfare encourages laziness), but that would go against the assumption that people are rational. Seems a bit too convenient for a free market economist to assume people are rational except when it justifies government welfare. I think you should consider the possibility that bad behavior is not a choice but a constraint, a consequence of having badly behaving parents (whether via genetics or environment).

Taeyoung writes:

Philippe Bélanger:

You can reframe these moral arguments as bad incentive arguments (i.e. welfare encourages laziness), but that would go against the assumption that people are rational.

Wouldn't "welfare encourages laziness" result from the assumption that people are rational? If they were irrationally lazy just because, you wouldn't need an incentive structure to encourage it. I don't see the contradiction in what you're suggesting (though I do see the tension in moralizing).

That said, making a utilitarian argument is fine, but I think Caplan's objection arises prior to that -- with the idea that people ought to be punished (by having their possessions taken away) to improve the welfare of other people for whose condition they are not responsible. Isn't that what:

Furthermore, the mere fact that someone is not culpable for his circumstances hardly implies that total strangers are culpable.

meant? This does not point to a utilitarian argument.

Jeff writes:
Spending time working with the indigent in pro bono legal cases has not made them any more sympathetic in my eyes.

Ditto. I work with a lot of hospitals, and they try really hard when indigent people come in to the ER to get these patients enrolled in Medicaid so that, at the very least, their future visits will be covered. The number of times that these people fail to submit all the needed information to apply for Medicaid or simply fail to show up for appointments with Medicaid case workers (and wind up being denied coverage as a result) just drives our clients up the wall.

t3 writes:

Dickens says he "interviewed" welfare recipients during his work on welfare reform. That's very different from knowing welfare recipients and watching them as a friend, family member or even case worker.

Someone on the last thread mentioned Jason DeParle's American Dream(Kindle version). It is a great book.

DeParle is left wing (he's NYT, his wife is Obama's healthfare czar) but the book is almost disturbing in showing the failures of the women it follows and their men and kids.

There is much fodder for Bryan and Dickens. It is also partly about the effects of federal and state welfare reforms.

Ken B writes:

"you seem to take a moralizing approach to welfare"

Don't advocates of generous welfare take a moralizing approach? Aren't attempts to justify paying benefits based on moral claims?

Philippe Bélanger writes:

@Taeyoung

Wouldn't "welfare encourages laziness" result from the assumption that people are rational?

I agree that you can assume rational laziness (as I would). And if you add to that the assumption of diminishing marginal value of money, then you should support welfare because it is a pareto improvement.

However my sense is that this is not what Caplan is assuming. The term "bad behavior" cleary suggests that it not a rational (utility-maximizing) behavior.

I think Caplan's objection arises prior to that -- with the idea that people ought to be punished (by having their possessions taken away) to improve the welfare of other people for whose condition they are not responsible.

This what I mean by a moralizing argument.

Philip writes:

Bryan's penultimate comment is very honest. His beliefs are a priori, so debating about evidence is pointless.

That's also clear from another sentence: "The mere fact that the poor continue to engage in irresponsible behavior shows that they currently 'neglect' the remedy of better behavior." Bryan takes this conclusion as his premise. All the rest is just noise.

Many of us with more practical utilitarian orientations are going to reject this way of thinking out of hand. If Bryan wants to convince us, he needs to put these kinds of philosophical impulses off to one side and make the case that government assistance in fact makes the world a worse place than it would otherwise be. Who knows, in doing so, he might even come up with some feasible suggestions for improvement, instead of just tediously signaling his libertarian moralizer bona fides.

Randy writes:

@Dan Hill,

Agreed. And I'm not responsible no matter how many times they tell me I am. As far as I'm concerned they're just taking the money for whatever, while endlessly rationalizing and propagandizing.

RPLong writes:

As I have been reading this back-and-forth, I continue to be struck by the notion that neither of you is particularly wrong. I think it is basically uncontestable that many welfare recipients continue on welfare instead of figuring a way off welfare. I think it is also basically uncontestable that many welfare recipients are in their current situations for reasons outside of their control.

When we phrase the debate about welfare in terms of the personal character of a welfare recipient, we do a major injustice to the debate, IMHO. Anyone who believes that the poor deserve their fate is cruel; anyone who believes that a socialist scheme should be concocted in which BOTH the poor AND a large middle-class government bureacracy ought to subsist off the confiscated proceeds of everyone else is a shyster.

To me, the welfare debate should not be about the supposed injustice of providing for the poor. It should be about the real injustice of creating a massively unnecessary and predatory bureaucracy under the mere EXCUSE that such a bureaucracy intends to feed the poor.

Floccina writes:
Money usually becomes an issue because he seems unwilling to keep at a job for any length of time, usually because of issues related to respect. Some of the jobs he can get don't pay enough to give him the self-respect he feels he needs, and others require him to go along with unpleasant customers and coworkers, and to maintain a submissive attitude toward the boss.

I have a good friend who is "poor", unemployed and getting very close to eviction from his apartment (which a half of a duplex mobile home). He just quit a job that he only held for 2 days. He quit because his boss was too critical of his work. The above describes his case well.

A question for readers: My friend has repeatedly quit or been fired for telling off his bosses. I have searched my mind for a way for him to make money without needing to interact with people. He actually can and will work hard though not accurately. The only things that I can come up with for him to do, is to make something that he can sell at auction (requires no salesmanship) like farm goods or even firewood but farming requires too much money up front and too much skill.

Any ideas?

Randy writes:

@Philip,

Re; "...make the case that government assistance in fact makes the world a worse place than it would otherwise be."

For who? I mean, clearly the political assistance programs make the world a better place for political functionaries, but just as clearly this is at the expense of some others, and arguably also at the expense of those whom the political functionaries claim to help.

Floccina writes:

I think that Mathew makes an important point here:

6. The truth about the poor in the west is that they mostly don't have the problems of poverty, but rather the problems of affluence.

I think that many women in the past married and stuck with, for example, drunk spouses because the alternative was to be so poor that is appeared worse.
I think, therefore beggars should not be choosers and we should give the poor the minimum rather than what we do now, which is to give them more thinking that more will somehow change them into people with middle-class behavior.

Philip writes:

@Randy,

Well, cliched as it is, most of us have the same impulse as Bill Dickens: what about the children? If you can make a proposal for changing the current system so that fewer children are born into the welfare in the future, AND you can do it without dumping half a million children into the gutter now, then I am positively thrilled to support it. So are legions of mainstream politicians.

If you just aren't very concerned with potential harms to the children who exist now, then your moral intuitions are very different from most of the electorate's. I suppose your moral intuitions could be superior, but simply asserting them isn't going to convince people who don't share them.

Silas Barta writes:

@Philip: Caplan's position is not a priori or immune to evidence. His point was that his position is well aware of the situations Dickens describes, and already accounts for them, so he would not be learning anything new by seeing what Dickens wants him to see.

This does not mean his beliefs are immune to evidence. If Caplan went out and found that welfare recipients really were, in general, making good decisions, prioritizing appropriately, etc., and still remained poor, I expect he would sharply change his views. But neither Dickens nor Caplan believe that's what he'll see. Therefore, Caplan's correct to say *both* that he changes his beliefs based on evidence, *and* that he would not change them based on going through the experiences Dickens wants him to.

(Please don't shuffle my comments into the spam filter again...)

Philip writes:

@Silas Barta: Bryan's snark about alcoholism is instructive. To Bryan, that someone is an alcoholic shows that they choose to disregard the bad things about being an alcoholic. The essence of that "choice" is in fact a large part of the disagreement, but Bryan has decisively made up his mind--it is a choice as freely made as his own choice to be a productive professor and blogger. Period. None of this guff about how it might be a very different (irrational) kind of mental process at work, please, the alcoholic should just not drink!

Given this conviction, I think he is right--spending time with a bunch of alcoholics would not do anything to change his mind. If they say they fail to experience their drinking as a rational choice, and indeed say that their rational mind pushes them to avoid alcohol, they are just lying. (Anyone non-alcoholic who believes such self-reports, Bryan basically tells us, is just a naive sucker being led around by some sort of survivor's guilt.) I admit, I don't see how this is being "open to evidence."

txslr writes:

Philippe,

I don't think Pareto Improvement means what you think it means.

SheetWise writes:

"I don't think Pareto Improvement means what you think it means."

I don't think such an improvement exists -- but those who think it does, and that the source is relative marginal utility, need to scroll down a couple pages to the discussion on Sorites Paradox.

wophugus writes:

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Randy writes:

@Phillip,

My moral intuitions are outside of the mainstream, no doubt. But I'm not wrong.

Mark Crankshaw writes:

@Phillip

"make the case that government assistance in fact makes the world a worse place than it would otherwise be..."

That's an easy enough case to be made. My family is clearly worse off than it would otherwise be since:

1) government assistance entails higher taxes than would otherwise exist and therefore directly lowers take home wages for me...

2) government assistance results in more government workers whose pay and benefits result in higher taxes and therefore lowers take home pay for me...

3) government assistance results in higher demand than would otherwise occur for food, housing, and other consumer goods, which drives up prices for food, housing, and other consumer goods. This leads inexorably to my family having less food, less quality or more expensive housing, and less other consumer goods.

4) government assistance leads to the reproduction of more poor which then leads to increases in #1, #2, and #3 above.

The irresponsibility of the poor and the government response to it (or accurately the stimulation of said irresponsibility by the government) clearly makes my family, and millions like it, worse off. It don't really care who is at fault, I just want the assault on my family to end. What about *my* children?

Seth writes:

You're too kind, Bryan. I had (public) high school teachers and university professors who would have handed me back a response like what Dickens' wrote with a "Needs more work," written at the top.

If I pressed, they would have told me to give them something not based on anecdotes (which are easily defeated with other anecdotes), straw men (which you spend a good deal of space in your response trying to correct), appeals to ridicule ('absurd notion'), a and more.

I might ask Dickens to explain, if anti-poverty programs are so good, why have we spent more and more on them over the years and locked the poverty rate into a range that was previously declining at a steady clip?

Paul writes:

The poor may be deserving or undeserving; but why should I care either way? What I want to know is if the welfare state and its consequences tend to benefit or harm me.

I have a feeling that I am not the only person who isn't concerned about morality in other peoples' lives but does take interest in how their actions may impact my own life.

Philo writes:

It would be good if, instead of confining your interviewing to people already on welfare, you also interviewed people who were just beginning to do the things that would make them end up on welfare.

Eli writes:

If poverty is responsible for their bad behavior, then you'd expect poor lottery winners to clean up their act. There are many stories about rags to riches lottery winners who abuse their good fortune and quickly become poor again, but I don't have a good idea of what the denominator is.

http://news.yahoo.com/terribly-sad-true-stories-lotto-winners-164423531.html

secret asian man writes:

Liberals like to make two claims:

1: The high rate of drug abuse and theft among the poor is caused by poverty alone. There is no such thing as character.

2: Bankers are a bunch of drug-addled thieves who have plenty of money. Their evil is one of character.

Only one of these statements can be true.

Doug writes:

" So I wonder: is it irresponsible to be a drug dealer? Why or why not? If it is, then it seems that the legal/political order plays a constitutive role in many of the determinants of “the responsible”, but if this is the case, than it seems odd to say that the legal/political order must itself reflect what is the responsible vs. the irresponsible."

The way most of the poor go about dealing drugs
is highly irresponsible. They sell on the street in plain public view where the police can easily see and arrest them. They get in meaningless beefs with other dealers over slivers of turf. They associate their distribution system with violent gangs that insist on going to war with other gangs.

In contrast most of the middle and upper class people I know who have pursued drug dealing as a profession are much smarter. They tend to keep a select clientele that they acquire through trusted friends and customers. Most go about their actual transactions through arranged meets in private residences safe from police. The few times that they are threatened or robbed they tend to write it off and avoid the people, place or situation that led to it.

Peter St. Onge writes:

@RPLong,

You wrote "Anyone who believes that the poor deserve their fate is cruel"

When you use 'deserve' do you mean 'poor cause their fate' or 'poor are karmically entitled to their fate'?

I believe the former is Bryan's central point (and a common right-wing belief) while the latter is a loaded caricature of that view.

If indeed the behavior of the poor is causing their fate, it would be cruel NOT to recognize this. Akin to spotting a boobytrap and not telling anybody.

Randy writes:

[Comment removed for crude language. Email the webmaster@econlib.org to request restoring your comment privileges.--Econlib Ed.]

Mr. Econotarian writes:

some - like low IQ - aren't really their fault. Others - like irresponsible behavior - are entirely their fault.

Why are these any different? They are both partially heritable.

For example the MAOA gene predicts credit card debt. Also MAOA-L carriers are better at making optimal financial decisions under risk. No doubt there are a bunch of other related genes to irresponsible behavior.

You can improve IQ and I suspect responsibility with training (e.g. the article "Improving fluid intelligence with training on working memory"), but it is generally a limited amount.

Matt McCandless writes:

We are not culpable in any sort of objective way. So the question should be,

What level of culpability provides the most optimal economic and social outcomes?

On the one hand it seems obvious that people respond to incentives in their environment, including incentive not to plan for the future. On the other it seems clear that wealth transfer CAN result in positive economic outcomes for all parties. From a policy perspective this shouldn't be morality play.

Lee Waaks writes:

Bryan,

You have hit the nail on the head about the irresponsibility of the poor. I eagerly await your book.

Mr. Dickens is not the only one who has spent time with the "disadvantaged". I went to High School in the ghetto during the 1970s/80s and it was an eye-opening experience. The moral chaos among the poor was quite evident and rampant. Recently I spoke to some co-workers who grew up or still live in the ghetto about why poor folks are poor and they did not hesitate to blame all the factors you cite in your post. Where I work I constantly see opportunities blown by irresponsible behavior among those who can least afford it.

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