Bryan Caplan  

Evil and Support for the Welfare State

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I've been reflecting on Garett's post on human evil and the welfare state ever since he wrote it.  The most striking passage:
Bryan notes that by some moral standards, we don't owe much to strangers in general; if that's right, how much less do we owe to strangers who, if they are college-educated males, might have a 35% probability of contemplating rape? And this is just one criminal proclivity, based merely on surveys.  

I suspect that if people were more aware of the awfulness of their neighbors, support for the welfare state would decline.
I agree that's one effect.  But if Garett's right about human evil, this also suggests that a lot of opposition to the welfare state is motivated by outright hatred of the poor!  After all, if pure malevolence is common, and X opposes government help for Y, we have a strong reason to accept the leftist caricature that X affirmatively enjoys seeing Y suffer. 

Yes, right-wingers may say "welfare hurts the very people it's supposed to help," or "charity is great but it should be voluntary."  But if people are as bad as Garett says, we should take these protests with a grain of salt.

So what?  If people believed that many opponents of the welfare state simply hated the poor, support for the welfare state would probably increase.  Net effect of belief in human evil on support for the welfare state: unclear.

P.S. For the record, I'm very suspicious of the rape surveys and related literature that Garett cites.  In virtually every survey I've ever seen, people claim to be paragons of propriety.  Any survey where many men admit to being potential rapists seems very fishy to me.  Unfortunately, I don't have the spare energy to investigate this anytime soon...


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COMMENTS (9 to date)
Kiran Pai writes:

I think you (and Garrett and nearly all libertarians) missed out on thinking about what could be the unmentionable reasons, for smart people supporting the welfare state. I really hope you cover this aspect in a later post. I think libertarians have to think about this point.

So there seems to be enough evidence that people indeed are more evil than we think. But that could exactly be the reason, there should be a welfare state! Now whatever we do in a full free market, there will be temporary periods of higher unemployment. You want such a large population of "evil" people out there, without anything to do and having great difficulty in feeding themselves and their children ? With cheap guns out there ?

You could argue that the welfare state could be a privately managed charity effort but you cannot argue there is a valid reason for the entrenched well off people to not worry about the bottom 5% getting too united with their free time and their evil thoughts and easy availability of guns.

Fundamentally that is why you need a welfare state. You need to create a "perception" of declared fairness. You want make it harder for people to show their evilness. Look we are rich and are enjoying America more than you, but We understand, We "care" for your welfare.

John writes:
After all, if pure malevolence is common, and X opposes government help for Y, we have a strong reason to accept the leftist caricature that X affirmatively enjoys seeing Y suffer.

Many on the right would follow your chain of logic in the very opposite direction: malevolence is common, therefore plans to raise taxes are motivated by hatred and jealousy. Sure, Obama and other Democrats may say that they're just trying to reduce the deficit, but if people are as bad as Garett says, we should take these protests with a grain of salt.

To me, it seems likely that a belief in human evil will lead Democrats to dismiss Republicans as greedy corporate leeches, and Republicans to dismiss Democrats as jealous secret communists. Since malevolence seems to be roughly equally distributed between ideologies, I think they're both wrong--but regardless, I think the outcome would be less "opponents of the welfare state are evil," and more "opponents of my ideology are evil."

Evan writes:
I agree that's one effect. But if Garett's right about human evil, this also suggests that a lot of opposition to the welfare state is motivated by outright hatred of the poor! After all, if pure malevolence is common, and X opposes government help for Y, we have a strong reason to accept the leftist caricature that X affirmatively enjoys seeing Y suffer.

This seems patently obvious to me. Economists often commonly point out that in terms of sheer damage to the national budget, welfare programs for the elderly middle class are far more harmful than programs for the poor. Yet attacks on the welfare state often focus on the much smaller programs for the poor, and typically argue that the poor are undeserving because sometimes a few of them figure out how to game the system. And they always seem to get angry at the people gaming the system, instead of the legislators who stupidly designed a system that was easy to game.

There are many honest opponents of the welfare state. But there are also extremely unpleasant people (they are especially common among paleoconservatives) who seem to possess an obsessive fear, contempt, and hatred of the poor and spend a huge amount of time denigrating them and their "social pathologies." I suspect their motivation is probably what this article calls "Melon Morality," trying to make yourself look morally good by seeking out reports of people who have severe moral failings and saying "at least I'm not like that."

Tom West writes:

instead of the legislators who stupidly designed a system that was easy to game.

I have to take issue with this. Every system can be gamed to some extent, and while you can tighten up the system, you are pretty much guaranteeing that some 'deserving' applicants (for whatever definition of deserving you use) will also be denied.

At the ends, you can serve every deserving person by serving everyone, and you can only stop every cheat by denying everyone. Really, what we get to decide is the ratio of deserving to cheat who get benefits.

For the most part, we've chosen a system that prizes servicing the 'deserving' over stopping cheats. That was a deliberate decision, not a stupid one.

RPLong writes:

Here's a joke I remember reading in a magazine, as told by Bono from the band U2:

An American and an Irishman are walking down the street, when they come upon a huge mansion. The American says, "One day, I'm going to live in that house!" The Irishman says, "One day, I'm going to get the b*stard that lives in that house!"
What I mean to say is that I have always believed that a good chunk of the motivation in favor of the welfare state was resentment for the rich and the desire to watch them suffer.

Am I wrong? When one reads the works of the 19th Century Marxists, the German Historical School of economics, and much of the political science of the so-called "New Left," one certainly gets the impression that they are motivated to no small degree against the rich, not merely in favor of the poor.

Certainly, listening to what the "Occupy" movement or Naomi Klein have to say is not so different, either.

I thought this was well-understood.

Methinks writes:

No, that's too narrow, Bryan.

My lack of support for the welfare state is in part an expression of my hatred of bureaucrats and bureaucracy. Said bureaucracy consumes almost every penny of what is confiscated from me in the name of these poster-ready poor.

If people hated the poor so much, we wouldn't give to charity so much - even AFTER we've been robbed by the government.

Tom West writes:

I have always believed that a good chunk of the motivation in favor of the welfare state was resentment for the rich and the desire to watch them suffer.

Which is why there's so much support for the welfare state among the middle and upper-middle classes...

Jeez, as if conversations weren't hard enough without assuming evil intent on the part of those you disagree with...

RA writes:
P.S. For the record, I'm very suspicious of the rape surveys and related literature that Garett cites. In virtually every survey I've ever seen, people claim to be paragons of propriety. Any survey where many men admit to being potential rapists seems very fishy to me.

Men probably understand the power of their sex drive and are reminded of their desire for sex they can't have much more often than they're reminded of money, etc. that they can't have.

Evan writes:

@Tom West

For the most part, we've chosen a system that prizes servicing the 'deserving' over stopping cheats. That was a deliberate decision, not a stupid one.

You may be right. However, I have noticed that less sophisticated critics of the welfare state tend to make the argument, "The welfare state can be gamed by the undeserving, therefore it is bad." The idea that there are tradeoffs, and that tolerating a few "welfare queens" in order to ensure we help all the deserving poor may well be worth it, is rarely addressed.

However, I suppose it's possible that this might be because of the human tendency to dislike contemplating tradeoffs in politics, rather than hatred of the poor.

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