Bryan Caplan  

Our Poverty and Theirs

Quarters on the Sidewalk as St... Walmart to the Rescue...
I regularly praise Nicholas Kristof's courageous essay on Third World poverty.  While First World immigration policies and Third World economic policies cause enormous harm, the global poor exacerbate their woes with grotesquely irresponsible behavior.  Kristof:
[I]f the poorest families spent as much money educating their children as they do on wine, cigarettes and prostitutes, their children's prospects would be transformed...

...Here in this Congolese village of Mont-Belo, we met a bright fourth grader, Jovali Obamza, who is about to be expelled from school because his family is three months behind in paying fees...

...The dad, Georges Obamza, who weaves straw stools that he sells for $1 each, is unmistakably very poor. He said that the family is eight months behind on its $6-a-month rent and is in danger of being evicted, with nowhere to go.

The Obamzas have no mosquito net, even though they have already lost two of their eight children to malaria. They say they just can't afford the $6 cost of a net. Nor can they afford the $2.50-a-month tuition for each of their three school-age kids.

"It's hard to get the money to send the kids to school," Mr. Obamza explained, a bit embarrassed...

In addition, Mr. Obamza goes drinking several times a week at a village bar, spending about $1 an evening on moonshine... almost as much as the family rent and school fees combined.

I asked Mr. Obamza why he prioritizes alcohol over educating his kids. He looked pained.

Other villagers said that Mr. Obamza drinks less than the average man in the village...

I was disappointed, then, to learn that Kristof's view of American poverty is rather fatalistic:

One delusion common among America's successful people is that they triumphed just because of hard work and intelligence.

In fact, their big break came when they were conceived in middle-class American families...

Kristof is far more forgiving of Rick Goff of Oregon than Georges Obamza of Congo:

Rick acknowledges his vices and accepts responsibility for plenty of mistakes: He smoked, drank too much for a time and abused drugs. He sometimes hung out with shady people, and he says he has been arrested about 30 times but never convicted of a felony. Some of his arrests were for trying to help other people, especially to protect women, by using his fists against bullies...

A generation or two ago, Rick might have ended up with a stable family and in a well-paid union job, creating incentives for prudent behavior. Those jobs have evaporated, sometimes creating a vortex of hopelessness that leads to poor choices and becomes self-fulfilling.

There has been considerable progress in material standards over the decades. When I was a kid, there were still occasional neighbors living in shacks without electricity or plumbing, and that's no longer the case. But the drug, incarceration, job and family instability problems seem worse.

Why can't people like Rick escape from poverty through old-fashioned puritanism?  Kristof just changes the subject: 

Obviously, some people born into poverty manage to escape, and bravo to them. That tends to be easier when the constraint is just a low income, as opposed to other pathologies such as alcoholic, drug-addicted or indifferent parents or a neighborhood dominated by gangs...

Yes, these men sometimes make bad choices. But just as wealthy Americans inherit opportunity, working-class men inherit adversity.

The knee-jerk response is to demand consistency: Either blame the poor - Americans and African - for their bad choices.  Or excuse the poor - Americans and African - on account of their bad upbringing. 

But the mere demand for consistency ignores a key fact: From cradle to tomb, Africans endure far harsher conditions than Americans.  Poor Africans grow up physically malnourished.  They have little exposure to sober bourgeois habits - even in school.  Once they enter the labor market, their prospects are grim unless they somehow escape to the First World.  Poor Americans, in contrast, are almost never hungry.  Their teachers expose them to the bourgeois way of life.  And in the labor market, poor Americans earn incomes that poor African migrants bet their lives to enjoy.

Even if you maintain that African and American poverty are both forgivable, then, you should still concede that African poverty is more forgivable than American poverty.  While the African poor could sharply improve their lives with better choices, even perfect choices are not a reliable way for them to escape poverty.  Poor Americans, in contrast, can reliably avoid poverty with basic prudence: finish high school, work full-time, delay child-bearing, and stay sober.  "I couldn't escape poverty even if I tried" has to be more forgivable than "I could have escaped poverty if I tried, but I sadly wasn't raised to try."

P.S. Critics often ask me, "Who cares who's to blame for poverty?  How does that help us fix the problem?"  My deep response is to reject their moral monomania.  Questions of moral blame are intrinsically interesting and important even if better answers won't help us 'solve problems.'" 

My direct response, though, is two-fold.  At minimum, blame provides a compelling criterion for the rationing of limited charity.  If we can only help 100,000 people, we should prioritize the morally blameless, and put unrepentant libertines at the bottom of the list. 

In addition, though, blame helps us correctly identify "problems."  If your suffering is entirely your own fault, the main "problem" is not your suffering.  The main problem is that the guiltless may feel guilty for failing to help you.  Thus, if a woman catches her husband cheating and resolves to divorce him, the morally relevant danger isn't that the husband will feel sad, but that the wife will feel sorry for him.  If your habitual drunkenness destroys your family and career, the morally relevant danger isn't that total strangers fail to help you, but that the fallout of your vices will weigh on the consciences of innocent passersby.

COMMENTS (20 to date)
RPLong writes:

That last point is a rather odd one. It sounds like what you're saying is that knaves are knaves not because they do bad things, but because guilt-ridden fools feel sorry for them anyway.

No matter what bad thing I do, it's not my fault that guiltless people feel guilty for my predicament. I can try to talk them out of it, but I am not ultimately morally responsible for their guilt.

brendan writes:

Among Eric Drexler's suggestions for "how to learn everything" is to pay special attention to subjects that link in many directions.

I finished Greg Clark's A Farewell to Alm's recently. It is one of those works that links everywhere!

The last part of Clark's book is on the Great Divergence in wealth between countries post industrial revolution. He shows that conventional explanations- institutions, tax rates, regulation, constraints on capital/trade flows, etc.- fail. What explains?

For some reason, at the turn of the century, an Indian textile worker spent merely 15 minutes per hour working. British workers were 5x as productive w/ same machines, same management, etc. Work intensity explained much of the productivity gap.

That fits Bryan's theme here.

Clark describes himself as more interested than his peers in the intimate, floor level mechanisms of economic patterns. Seems a richer source of explanation than Jeff Sachs type "poverty traps" to be solved by windfalls.


Bryan said: "From cradle to tomb, Africans endure far harsher conditions than Americans. Poor Africans grow up physically malnourished."

But that's true of pre 19th century Brits, too, right? And they were plenty bourgeois.

JA writes:

I wonder if prudence, work ethic, ambition, etc. are just as hereditary as intelligence or height, would that change your analysis?

The idea of the morally blameless seems a little too much for me on a Monday morning. I get the point about the inconsistency of criticizing Obamza but not Goff. It seems like a lot of people just can't get it together to improve their lot, I am not sure how blame worthy that is. Presumably, those who can get it together and are highly motivated need significantly less help to escape poverty.

Bostonian writes:

"the global poor exacerbate their woes with grotesquely irresponsible behavior"

That's a good argument for not importing them here under an Open Borders policy and taking responsibility for their children.

Jens writes:

Third World, as opposed to First World, is derogatory, Do not use it, please. Thank you!

HH writes:
That's a good argument for not importing them here under an Open Borders policy and taking responsibility for their children.

Well, it's a good argument for not taking responsibility for their children. So let them come here but make them and their progeny permanently ineligible for welfare and public benefits. Problem solved.

[Not to start an open borders discussion here, but my the keyhole solutions should be considered first.]

Jeff writes:
Why can't people like Rick escape from poverty through old-fashioned puritanism?

Good question. Wasn't that the substance of Malcolm X's plan for uplifting African-Americans in the 1960's that you blogged about? It seems like that kind of message could help more people today than in the 1960's. And yet there's no comparable figure advocating anything like that. In fact, religion has become de classe amongst the lower classes (ie, the people who would probably benefit the most), as Charles Murray has pointed out. Curious. I'm not sure why that is; it just seems like, necessity being the mother of invention, after all, someone would figure it out. Or at least figure out there was a buck or two to be made preaching about it, right?

Jason Thomas writes:

"...even perfect choices are not a reliable way for them to escape poverty."

You just made an argument that justifies state intervention in the economy (not that a counterfactual is ever existed, since markets require both rules and enforcers of rules) as well as progressive taxation by stating that one of the causal factors of prosperity is the underlying economic health (and I think you would agree, stability) of a society; that raw pluck and determination alone are not sufficient to procure a decent standard of living in one place, under one set of rules and institutions and government, but minimal effort might provide an existence of abundance in another under a different set of rules institutions and government. That point undermines the very basic underlying premises supporting the logic and justification of a libertarianesq social structure based on pure merit.

You also provide zero empirical support to any of these claims, merely conjecture.

Mr. Econotarian writes:

There is a bit of truth to what Kristol says.

People in the US can afford to be more messed up because our economic freedom allows is to be more productive.

A guy buying one drink per night is putting the future of his family at risk in the Congo. In the US, hedge fund traders sip a (expensive micro-brew) beer together at a high-end Wall Street bar after every hard working day, and it is called networking.

Mark V Anderson writes:

Jason, I don't think so. Your conjecture implies that state intervention would make perfect choices a more reliable way to escape poverty. Your average libertarian believes that it is state intervention that makes it less likely for for the poverty stricken to advance. And that's actually a very easy case to make in the Congo. I think a case could be made that pure anarchy in Congo would have been better for your average poor person than the government they have had (and continue to have).

Grant Gould writes:

A quibble with your use of "puritanism." The Puritans were far from sober, with an average alcohol consumption well above today's. Look for your stereotype of teetotal virtue elsewhere.

Sam Grove writes:

"Who cares who's to blame for poverty? How does that help us fix the problem?"

It's less a matter of WHO'S to blame, but of WHAT is to blame. The answers to that points toward solutions.

George Balella writes:

"If we can only help 100,000 people, we should prioritize the morally blameless, and put unrepentant libertines at the bottom of the list. "

Sounds like you might want a new government agency... The Department of Blame. We can put you at the head of the agency and it's goal will be to interview all newborn babies born below the poverty level and determine by 6 months of age which ones will be the libertines....and which will be the libertarians.

John T. Kennedy writes:


"No matter what bad thing I do, it's not my fault that guiltless people feel guilty for my predicament. I can try to talk them out of it, but I am not ultimately morally responsible for their guilt."

Sure but I thought Bryan's point was pretty clear. The problem worth addressing is the guiltless people feeling guilty, not the bad consequences of being a knave. That's the fault of those guiltless people, sure, but they're more deserving of one's concern and help.

RPLong writes:

John - Assuming you're addressing me (Ryan), it's possible that I've misunderstood Caplan's point.

He states, "If your suffering is entirely your own fault, the main ... problem is that the guiltless may feel guilty for failing to help you." I don't see that as a problem. Sympathy isn't a scarce resource. Caplan seems to be suggesting that too much sympathy for knaves will result in too many charity resources being allocated to knaves.

But I think: It's my charity, and my sympathy, and I'll give it to whom I please. Charity isn't a one-way transaction; I make my charitable choices based on my values, not based on a Caplanian utilitarianism in which we first assign fault for suffering and then dole out resources according to who has the least blame.

What an unpleasant way to offer a helping hand.

Granite26 writes:

I'm not sure that this is as black and white as it's being made out to be. Sure there are a lot of the poor who are blameworthy for not doing more to help themselves, but I'm also moved by the argument that the poor have fewer ways to mitigate those lapses in judgement. Yes, every poor person should be able to point to the failure(s) that have left them poor, but a large number of middle class people have similar failings, but are in a better position to mitigate them. We'd all like to think that if we lost our way, we'd tighten our belt buckles and work until we got back on track. How often is that really true? How often does someone get knocked down to the point that what should've been a trivial setback becomes another roadblock on the path to success? A roadblock where working your way through leaves you drained of the resources (and willpower) necessary to weather the next storm?

OH Anarcho-Capitalist writes:

We must remember that poverty is the natural state of mankind. To focus on the causes of poverty is irrelevant; it's the causes of prosperity that need to be studied, learned, taught, praised, and deemed a worthy goal of the individual.

Mr. Caplan is correct also in his last paragraph - what he describes are called enabling behaviors, or co-dependency. Co-dependency destroys two people - the enabled & the enabler.

Zachary Woodman writes:

Throughout the post, I admit I was one of those who was thinking their was no use in moral blame in this case. I still don’t quite know what you mean by “intrinsically interesting,” but you have given some pragmatic value to moral blame in poverty with the term priority.

Still, is it safe to avoid moral blame because most people tend to overuse it even when it is useless? Though there may be a case for prioritization and help in poverty, there is little doubt that moral blame is incredibly over-used.

For example, in the Israel-Palestine conflict in which everyone wants to find a side to “blame” while the other side is the victim and any actual constructive discussion is swept aside in the torrent of moral judgement? Or when two sides in a dispute (especially a massive social conflict) disagree and moral blame intensifies as both sides equally become both defensive. Then it becomes a race for who can execute retributive justice more swiftly. Isn’t it true that such an environment of moral judgement is only conducive to violence and negative outcomes when avoiding moral blame would have produced better results?

John T. Kennedy writes:


Sorry I confused you with Roderick Long.

You write: "Caplan seems to be suggesting that too much sympathy for knaves will result in too many charity resources being allocated to knaves."

I think it's as much or more that that the guiltless may feel unnecessary and unmerited discomfort.

"What an unpleasant way to offer a helping hand."

Unless you deny that there is such a thing as desert, I don't see what's wrong with taking it into account, it fact it seems wasteful to do otherwise.

RPLong writes:

John, I'm flattered that I could be confused for someone whose ideas I greatly admire.

I think what I'm getting at is that there might be a danger in seeing one's charity as an opportunity to dole out moral lessons to other people. I see this as being unseemly and something to be avoided at all costs. I like to view the needy as equals, people in situations that, with worse luck, I might be in myself some day. The last thing I would want is to beg for help from someone who insists first on scrutinizing the extent of my moral imperfections. Asking for help is humiliating enough without having to make a case for one's moral integrity on top of all that. And what might we say of a donor who preferred being in that kind of position?

In the abstract, I see where Caplan is coming from. But only in the abstract. In the real world, it's better to offer your help to someone in need or else just mind your own business. No one likes a sanctimonious benefactor.

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