Bryan Caplan  

Income and Irresponsibility

Fringe Benefits and Stagnating... Greece and tax sadist tourism...
Suppose you learn that rich and poor people get drunk equally often.  Should you conclude that the poor are no more prone to irresponsible drinking than the rich?

No.  You can't sensibly categorize behavior as "responsible" or "irresponsible" until you know the actors' circumstances.  The greater the risk your behavior will lead to dire consequences for yourself, your dependents, or bystanders, the more irresponsible your behavior.  The richer you are, the easier it is to avoid or remedy such consequences - and the less likely a given action qualifies as irresponsible. 

Consider these obvious cases:

1. Spending $100 on dinner.  This is extremely irresponsible if you only have $105 to your name, but fine when you're a millionaire. 

2. Having unprotected sex.   This is irresponsible when you're unable to support a child, but fine if you're prepared for parenthood. 

The same logic holds for drunkenness.  Heavy drinking has well-known health and employment dangers.  The poorer you are, the less able you are to cope with these dangers if they materialize - and the greater your obligation to avoid taking chances in the first place.

The upshot is that if behavior does not vary by income, we should conclude that the poor are more irresponsible than the rich.  If the rich actually engage in less risky behavior than the poor, the true gap is bigger than it looks.

If you're outraged by this implication, note that family status works the same way.  When a childless single courts danger, he risks his future.  When a married parent courts danger, he risks not only his own future, but the future of his spouse and his kids.  Think about riding a motorcycle.  This could simultaneously be a reasonable trade-off for a childless single and a reckless gamble for a married parent.  Why?  Because when you're a married parent, the total downside is much more serious.

Aren't family status and income fundamentally different?  Not really.  Neither depends on choices alone.  Opportunities and luck both play their role.  The virtuous path is not to bemoan our situation, but to act responsibly in whatever situation we find ourselves.

COMMENTS (12 to date)
JLV writes:

This is endogenous with state intervention, though, no? Drunkenness in Sweden, for instance, has the same consequences, but poor people will be able to better cope with these (via generous unemployment insurance and state provided health care).

Change the language a bit and a lefty could sell this as a justification for redistribution.

ilya writes:

I bet it's still more comfortable to be a rich drunk in Sweden:

  • having wealth in investments > no need to worry about unemployment insurance expiration
  • doctors accessible to drunk rich people are likely to be more convenient and win on privacy compared to doctors accessible to drunk poor people
john hare writes:

Sometimes being responsible has drawbacks. In two at fault auto accidents I am aware of, the uninsured broke driver was left alone while the heavily insured company driver was sued. An indigent that goes to prison suffers little while a responsible person loses income, resources and status. It's hard to fall off the bottom rung in the nanny state.

MG writes:

Under American de facto, tort liability precedents, the rich often have a lot more to lose than the poor. So the assymmetry in the cost of tort irresponsibility evens out the playing field.

Josiah writes:

I'd say the opposite. If you're rich, drunkeness is more irresponsible because you have more to lose.

Being a drunk might mean losing your job, but that's not a risk if you are unemployed. Etc.

Thomas writes:

This seems similar to a point Steven Landsburg made regarding different demographics having the same probability of possessing contraband when searched:

George Balella writes:

"The virtuous path is not to bemoan our situation, but to act responsibly...."

The problem with this sort of thinking is to presume you are talking about and to adults. As a pediatrician with once libertarian leanings I was always infuriated by poor people having yet another child they couldn't really care for. With time however, I realized the baby brought into the world by this act of irresponsibility was not being irresponsible in choosing their parents. But indeed that baby would be more likely to grow up to be an irresponsible parent themselves. So when you say things like, "The virtuous path is not to bemoan our situation, but to act responsibly..." you have to say them as if you re talking to a newborn baby and then think about how much or how little sense such statements make and how little they address the real issues or lead to real solutions.

Daublin writes:

In addition to what Josiah says, a rich person is more likely to be depended on by other people. It's more irresponsible for a major CEO to get drunk than for just a shmoe working an assembly line.

I am sympathetic to the line of argument, but it's not clear which direction the slope should go.

Michael Byrnes writes:

Maybe it is a risk/benefit issue. The worse off you are the less you have to lose from excessive risk-taking and the less you have to gain by being responsible.

Miguel Madeira writes:

What exactly mean "responsability"?

For me, a "responsable" person is a person who accepts the responsibility of his actions, instead of make other people to pay for his decisions.

IMO, there is no "irresponsability" in getting drunk - providing that you take care of avoiding to harm other people with your drunkness.

Jesse Curtis writes:

The wealthy and the poor will both face some loss after behaving in an irresponsible manner, but often times the wealthy are able to correct their behaviors using their wealth in various ways. On the other hand poor people will face the same consequences that a wealthy person does, but will be less likely to remedy the situation. This doesn’t mean that it is more irresponsible for poor people to drink as frequently as wealthy people. Yes, wealthy people are able to remedy the consequences but the fact is they still behaved just as irresponsibly as poor people. Just because the wealthy have more ways to remedy the situation does not mean the poor are more irresponsible if they drink as frequently as the wealthy.

We must weigh the risks and benefits of the decisions we make. A poor person might get drunk as frequently as wealthy person, but both have some level of risk. Who is to say that one’s loss is greater than the other? In the end both parties lose something by making poor decisions. In that case of consuming alcohol, wealthy or poor, these parties will have consequences if they behave irresponsibly while under the influence of alcohol.

lemmy caution writes:

Abstaining from drinking alcohol is pretty dangerous:

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