Garett Jones  

On Human Evil: Implications for the Welfare State

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The pattern of individual, decentralized human evil I've discussed in recent posts is an underappreciated argument against the welfare state.  If a substantial fraction of the people around us are money-burners and perverse punishers, how much sympathy will voters have for such folks when they are down on their luck? 

Think of this as a ceteris paribus exercise: If the average poor person were more moral, more kind,  would that raise or lower the political support for the welfare state?  The answer is all around us: Political supporters of the welfare state overwhelmingly focus on sympathetic cases--women with small children, people losing jobs due to offshoring, victims of chronic disease--so they must think that political support for transfer programs depends on a belief that people are basically good.  

But a lot of people are actually just awful.  One example among billions: In a series of studies of male college students in the 1980's, Malamuth found that about 35% of these students in the U.S. and Canada said they'd consider committing a rape if they knew they wouldn't get caught; 20% would seriously consider it.  The Malamuth studies sparked the field of "rape proclivity," a literature that has continued to generate disturbing findings ever since.   And these studies are just detecting those students who are willing to state their proclivities in a survey; the true number is surely higher.

We are, all of us, constantly surrounded by such people.  

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.  


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COMMENTS (33 to date)
sieben writes:

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mike shupp writes:

Uh... 20% of the people receiving welfare are would-be rapists, so this is an argument against paying welfare. Uh-huh. 20% of the guys (who are in fact rather underepresented on the hard core welfare rolls), 20 % of the women, and 20% of the childrem. Rapists all!

Let me mention that there is a group of people who really dislike paying for welfare. This includes people of many political persuasions and a broad spectrum of incomes and occupations. It even includes -- who'd have guessed! -- economists with blogs. And by the reasoning we've demonstrated here, 20% of those anti-welfare proponents are would be rapists.

Now. It's totally fair and reasonable to discriminate against welfare seekers because of their criminal propensities. It must be equally fair to disregard the principles of people who dislike welfare programs because of their equally obnoxious criminal propensities.

I see a logical equivalence here. Perhaps you don't, but you're at at a university -- find a philosophy prof and see what he or she says!

Alternately, you might accept my reasoning -- which is that the likelihood that some welfare recipients might be criminals is not a valid reason for refusing welfare. Again, looking for an equivalence, the likelihood that some poor people might be criminals is not a valid reason for refusing clean air to all poor people. Or clean water. Or decent elementary schools. Or the the hospital emergency rooms that Mitt Romney has promised us.

Please consider me one of your awful neighbors!

D writes:

Perhaps a better argument is to a) look at what people do rather than a survey response, and b) look at the actual people who are beneficiaries of the welfare state.

So use crime data rather than a survey and look how the poor tend to rate relative to middle/upper class folks.

roystgnr writes:

Your summary of that Malamuth review article misstates it. The question was not whether they would "consider" committing an unpunishable rape, but whether on a 1 to 5 scale they would be between "(1) not at all likely" and "(5) very likely" to commit such a rape. 35% of responses were 2 or higher; 20% were 3 or higher.

This must not have been an intentional distortion, though, because the original version is much more supportive of your point. With your version we could imagine an "out": an ideally rational person "seriously considers" any question they are asked. That doesn't mean that when one of the answers is horrifying a rationalist won't choose the correct answer instead, just that they have no mental box labeled "stuff I turn off my brain for". (such metaphorical boxes are usually quite practical, but somehow they always end up containing more than they should)

Yet if that review article's phrasing is to be believed, the original question wasn't asking about consideration, it was asking about likelihood. Even if we generously assume that 15% of men are nitpicking amateur philosophers who refuse to answer non-abstract questions with total certainty, it's hard to come up with an excuse beyond "evil" for the 20% who see more than a negligible probability that they would be opportunistic rapists.

RPLong writes:

Mike Shupp misses the point. Surely he is free to disregard the opinions of bloggers based on an estimated 20% incidence of criminal intent, or on any other basis. Choosing whose views one takes seriously is a completely voluntary act. State-imposed welfare regimes, on the other hand, are compulsory.

Ken B writes:

Of course if I had a wicked sense of humour I'd turn it around, and argue this bolsters the need for a welfare state. In state action we, the good majority, can have our way, and tax even the shirkers rather than bear the costs alone. And what if some of us, the good ones, fall into poverty? Better not to have to rely on our neighbours, we've seen what they are like! 20% of them anyway. And the high percentage of dastards means a high per centage of abandoned parents we must support, and that suggests a welfare state to share the burden.
All in all, we need a welfare state the more with so much evil around us!

Ted Levy writes:

Your argument doesn't even consider the very real possibility that the ones among us most prone to evil--the money-burners and perverse punishers--lie predominantly among the ruling class: government employees, office holders, public union members, bureaucrats, etc.

I would think that observation would further sharpen the argument that tax-payers should not subsidize such people, which amounts to taxpayers being forcibly deprived of income to allow them to act wickedly on the poor and helpless, deserving and undeserving alike.

ThomasL writes:

Quite.

"[O]riginal sin... is the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved."

Steve Sailer writes:

I don't know about you, but I have contrived to live in a neighborhood where my neighbors, qua neighbors, are helpful and kind to me when I need neighborly help. Their private lives, especially their fantasy lives as in the example in the posting, don't much concern me.

No mention of incentives? People became a lot 'badder' pretty quickly when the country's elites decided that crime was caused by poverty and shouldn't, in all fairness, be punished, but (effectively) subsidized.

Sister Y writes:

Hm, where do these awful people come from? What policies would reduce the flow out of the awful-person spigot?

Jeff writes:

How much would legalizing prostitution change the results of the survey about rape? I mean, if you can purchase something legally at a reasonable price, your incentives for taking it by force are much reduced.

Stephen J writes:

The more I learn the more I like the Welfare State. Increase taxes on the rich; they can afford it and it will have little to no effect on the economy (8% unemployment is the new American normal - get use to it). In this economy, it only makes since to increase the social welfare state. We are living in a new economy (intellectual economy). Thereby, IQ's of 130 or higher should be taxed at a higher rate, to support those w/ lower IQ's.

Doug writes:

"Hm, where do these awful people come from? What policies would reduce the flow out of the awful-person spigot?"

It begins with a "eu" and rhymes with phonetics. Of course at least for the past 70 years it's generally considered impolite to even mention the word in proper company...

Ken B writes:
Hm, where do these awful people come from? What policies would reduce the flow out of the awful-person spigot?
Ironically enough, considering the main argument Garett makes, some would argue ... the welfare state.
Mark Crankshaw writes:

@ken b

In state action we, the good majority, can have our way, and tax even the shirkers rather than bear the costs alone. And the high percentage of dastards means a high per centage of abandoned parents we must support, and that suggests a welfare state to share the burden. All in all, we need a welfare state the more with so much evil around us!

You could argue that, wicked humor or not. However, that argument rests upon several layers of fallacy and demonstrates why the Welfare State will always be divisive and under suspicion.

The majority good? I don't believe so.

Me part of the majority, good or bad? I don't believe so.

The "majority" has its way? I don't see that either. Even in a "democracy", a small elite "has its way" with the majority, good or bad, and simply dictates policy that the rest of us are stuck with.

If most people are self-serving bad types, then even if an attempt to "share the burden" would be intrinsically dishonest and corrupt. In contrast to your assertion, I assert that the "more evil around us" the more likely that the Welfare State will be corrupt, abused, and simply up to no good.

If the majority were bad, we might expect that the kind of Welfare State the bad would favor would take from the politically weak and relatively poor and give to the politically strong and relatively rich. And being bad, the bad would be totally dishonest about their political intentions (the bad tend not to be terribly honest, kind of by definition)--"it's for the orphans and widows, you see" as they pocket their filthy lucre.

And, by dollar amount, what are the largest Welfare State programs in the US federal budget? Why, Social Security, Medicare, and the DOD (welfare for generals). Programs in which the the politically strong and relatively rich, including millionaires and billionaires and the BMW-Volvo upper middle class, tax the politically weak and relatively poor and pocket the proceeds. Imagine that...

John B. writes:

Way, way back in the late 1960s the public schools in my home town surveyed the students about drug usage.

The local paper reported with horror that there were _two_ heroin addicts in seventh grade.

My younger brother told me that he and his friend had deliberately set out to hack the test and had answered that they took everything; they were the "heroin addicts" found by the survey. Of course they were no such thing, they were teenagers with a crude sense of humor.

Are we sure that the survey cited isn't just picking up young men who see an opportunity to hack a survey in a "funny" way? I remember many bright young college students who enjoyed shocking people with such statements; they weren't monsters waiting for an opportunity, they were showing off how iconoclastic and thus free they were.

I agree with a previous poster that "would consider" is quite different from what the survey authors probably wanted to ask. I can't, however, come up with a short phrase that means that not only would I just think about something, I would quite likely implement the result in the real world.

And here you also have to realize that this consideration is of a "can't possibly ever happen event", as no one could actually promise that there would never be any punishment. In that sense, this is like asking "If you could fly and no-one could see you fly, would you cross international borders?". The answer "Yes" says nothing about your willingness to actually violate international borders in any real sense.

Daublin writes:

It's a good point.

I'd be interested how this sort of research is affected by the homogeneity of the region in question. Is the rape proclivity any different in a country like Sweden or Denmark?

MingoV writes:
And this is just one criminal proclivity, based merely on surveys....
... that do not predict real-world behavior. I don't believe that 35% of college men in the 1980s were opportunistic rapists. The survey question described a fantasy world where one could commit a crime and have zero chance of being caught. Similar questions have been asked about theft and murder, and they had similar responses. Daydreams or fantasies of raping a beautiful woman, torturing and/or murdering an enemy, stealing millions of dollars, etc. are common, especially among teens and young adults. Such fantasies almost never predict behavior. Thus, surveys that ask how one would respond in a fantasy situation also do not predict real-world behavior. I am disappointed that people who should know better are reading far too much into these types of surveys.
Matt C writes:

> Political supporters of the welfare state overwhelmingly focus on sympathetic cases

I do not think this is true. The idea that criminals are themselves victims of society/circumstances/etc is a common one and finds more support on the leftish side of politics.

Generally, I think supporters of the welfare state are ready to see *any* social ill as a justification for more intervention. If you could prove that a third of men really were latent rapists held back only by fear of punishment, that would only indicate the need for more childhood intervention programs, public awareness campaigns, mandatory proactive therapy sessions, etc.

I agree that some of these guys are probably just messing with the surveyers. At the same time, I think Solzhenitsyn was right: the line between good and evil runs down the middle of every human heart. Most people could be brought around to do horrible things, given time and incentives. You aren't going to get at the truth of that from a survey though.

Ritwik writes:

If poor people are more moral & kind, we should support the welfare state.

College educated people are not very moral and kind.

Hence, we should not support the welfare state.

Am I the only one who has trouble following the logic there?

Euratool writes:

Three quarters of the recipients of welfare are children.

Having worked in the inner city I can tell you they are much more likely to be the victims of rape than the perpetrators.

Why are you vilifying them here?

Does it assuage your guilt knowing that children are hungry while you spend more than they receive in a month on a single restaurant meals? Do you wish to take away their food stamps so you can go our more often?

Do you want to make their horrible schools more awful so you can send your own children to even more prestigious schools where they will they will never have to brush elbows with the nasty poor? Do you with to make these children's lives more filled with desperation and violence?

You have the perspective of someone of privilege who assumes he knows how the other half lives without ever having done the work to find out.

You assumptions are incorrect and your perspective is barren either logic or anything resembling a moral compass.

You should be ashamed to have written that.

Garett Jones writes:

@ET:

You're providing evidence for my hypothesis: The actually-existing welfare state in the US (taking your numbers as given---I haven't checked) is targeted at the most sympathetic subjects, a group less likely (at least in the minds of the average voter) to be involved in great evil.

Sympathy is central to political support for the welfare state--I think that much is unobjectionable, and indeed, you drew on sympathy for the suffering in your comment. My additional claim was that certain information, if more widely known, would reduce that sympathy.

Where the sympathy would decline would depend on which information became more widely known--I plucked out that one example partly because it would be difficult to claim that poverty was causing that particular survey response.

Of course, the opposite is true as well: if people knew more about the undeserved suffering of some of the poor, voters would support the welfare state more than they do now.

But that's an obvious point---indeed, it's widely made already in progressive circles.

Methinks writes:

Does it assuage your guilt knowing that children are hungry while you spend more than they receive in a month on a single restaurant meals? Do you wish to take away their food stamps so you can go our more often?

What a load of hooey! The government corralled them into ghettos, infantilized the parents and prohibited them from choosing their schools. Of every dollar taxed away on their behalf something like $0.98 goes to the IRS and the bloated bureaucracy in charge of redistribution. And what do they get for the remaining 0.02? Government cheese, which they immediately monetize on the street corner.

And THIS is what you bleeding hearts call "welfare"? I call it self-aggrandizement and the care and feeding of useless bureaucrats.

Spare me the violins! The welfare state does nothing at all to improve the welfare of the poor. It pimps the poor to the feeble-minded in order to justify theft from the productive purely to line the pockets of bureaucrats and politicians. The worst thing that could ever happen to those parasites is improved opportunities for clients of the welfare state.

Tracy W writes:
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 don't see how the possibility that someone might have a 35% probability of contemplating rape lowers our obligations to strangers in general (though one can think of specific situations where you shouldn't trust someone for that sort of reason, those typically apply even at much lower general rates of the person wanting to commit rape or murder or perhaps infecting with a deadly disease).

Methinks writes:

Tracy,

If the only thing stopping the guy on the corner from raping you is getting caught, does that illustrate to you some feeling of obligation toward you or toward himself? If that guy would rape you provided the cost to him was low, do you feel an obligation toward him? If you were financially responsible for a person on disability and found out that he wasn't disabled at all, would you feel inclined to continue to support him?

If men were angels.....but they're not.

Mark Crankshaw writes:

@Euratool

Does it assuage your guilt knowing that children are hungry while you spend more than they receive in a month on a single restaurant meals?

You are projecting your guilt on to others, I'm afraid. I feel absolutely no guilt whatsoever with regard to other mens' children. Not my problem.

FACT: No child has ever been born without the participation of a willing male. If there is a child in this world going hungry, then there is a male in this world who has dismally failed in his primary responsibility. If guilt or shame is in order, it is that male who should feeling it. If that male is deceased, then I am all for caring for orphans. However, if the father of these so-called "hungry" children has plenty of money for alcohol, cigarettes, drugs, cable TV and his nefarious attempts to have yet more children at taxpayers' expense, then I most strenously object.

I take care of my children. I fulfill my primary responsibility as a father. I've never asked for help, am not asking for help now, and I will NEVER ask help of anyone, especially the government. To do so would a humilating capitulation to abject and abysmal personal failure for which one should feel deep guilt, regret and unremitting shame. So do not foist your guilt upon me, thank you very much.

egd writes:
Having worked in the inner city I can tell you they are much more likely to be the victims of rape than the perpetrators.
When you say you "worked" in the inner city, presumably with underprivileged people providing benefits, do you mean that you contributed your labor and received a salary for it?

If so, that money came out of the same pool of money that goes towards these underprivileged and deserving children.

Are you comfortable knowing that the money you received for your work took food out of kids' mouths and kept their schools in deplorable conditions?

Brandon Hepler writes:

While I agree with the original poster when he says that if people were more aware of the awfulness of their neighbors, then support for the welfare state would decline. However, basing this conclusion on the findings of a survey on whether men would commit rape if they knew they wouldn’t be caught doesn’t actually support the evilness of people. I believe it would be much more credible to present statistics on the percent of released prisoners who are currently receiving welfare. I believe that if a significant portion of welfare recipients were (former) criminals and this was publicly known, then as the author suggested, support for the welfare state would in fact decline. I believe this is true because it seems like common sense that rapists, thieves, and other criminals shouldn’t get money/assistance from the government.
I think the core of this issue lies with the origin of welfare resources; taxes. I personally don’t find appealing the idea of my tax dollars being spent to preserve and sustain the life of criminals. However, in order to be swayed against the welfare state, I need to be convinced that my tax dollars are in fact being redistributed to criminals and not just college-educated men who would consider raping someone and have not.

James Reade writes:

So your argument is that if we were all more aware of how evil mankind is, we'd have less support for the welfare state? In that case you have a testable prediction. Go to your nearest evangelical Christian church and poll support there for the welfare state.

You see, it's central to the Christian message that all men are evil (sinful). Funnily enough though, in the evangelical church I'm a member of, even those on the right of the political spectrum would still profess support for the welfare state.

Maybe they are just not enlightened enough? Or maybe they are just sensible and don't infer that because man is capable of evil that he/she will do it always, and particularly just because they go to work in a public sector job vs a private sector job.

Walter writes:

To be honest, I tend to agree with you. Although it saddens me to admit it, I have come to the conclusion that people generally perform generous or kind acts for their own gain and whoever benefits from it, either directly, or indirectly, is just a lucky byproduct. I have even noticed such a thing in myself. Even the most out-of-the-way and burdensome tasks can be rationalized as my own desire to feel a sense of accomplishment from having done something “selfless” for someone else with no monetary reward. When I first came to this conclusion, I was quite saddened by it, much as a certain mathematician, whose name escapes me, was when he completely summarized the concept of generosity within a single formula. However, I have since recognized that perhaps this is another case of valuing the journey instead of the destination, albeit in a somewhat different format. When the wealthy display a “generous” side, instead of snidely recognizing that they are only doing it for themselves, perhaps it is less mentally taxing to just be grateful that you happen to be one of those lucky byproducts. On the other side of that coin, you should also always be prepared to help out your fellow man when the chance, not need, arises, because you never know when or how they will reward your efforts, considering they may not do it consciously or of their own will. I like to think of it as positive spite.
Of course, this concept only really applies to the selfish and miserly, instead of the harmful. If worried about the possibility of being raped by college students, I would suggest carrying a stun gun or pepper spray on my person when wandering alone on campuses.

Tracy W writes:

Methinks:

If the only thing stopping the guy on the corner from raping you is getting caught, does that illustrate to you some feeling of obligation toward you or toward himself?

I don't see the relevance of this hypothetical. In the real world, I don't have mind-reading skills. The relevant question is what are my obligations if there's a 35% chance (or whatever the exact figure) that he's only refraining from raping me out of fear of getting caught. That still leaves a large chance that he's not a would-be rapist; if it's 35% then he's more likely than not to be a non-rapist. The chance that he might be a rapist argues against me going anywhere where I'd be alone with him, but as I indirectly said in my earlier comment, that would still be true if the odds were a lot lower than 35%, even if it was 1%, it's still not a risk I'd want to run.

To turn it around another way, would you be happy to live in a world where a guy hanging out on a corner, making no threatening moves, gets treated as a rapist just because there's a 35% chance that he might be a rapist, or because a passerby has decided they have mind-reading skills and that guy is a rapist? If so, assuming you are female, do you have any male relatives? I have quite a few and I hate the thought of my husband, or my brother, or my son, being treated that way.

If that guy would rape you provided the cost to him was low, do you feel an obligation toward him?

I once worked as a nurse's aid at a secure centre for people with mental problems. I think this was probably true of some of the patients. I still felt an obligation to do my job well even with them.

Michael Blomquist writes:

To argue that we shouldn't help poor people you point out a study conducted on a bunch of bros in college. That's preposterous.

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