Bryan Caplan  

Who Really Cares About the Poor?: A Socratic Dialogue

Scott Alexander on Malcolm Mug... America Takes Over the World--...
Glaucon: Can you believe all these rich jerks who refuse to help the poor?

Socrates: I'm puzzled, Glaucon.  You're rich, but I've never seen you help the poor.

Glaucon: I gave five gold pieces this year.  But I'm not talking about charity, Socrates.  I'm talking about last night's vote in the Assembly.

Socrates: Sorry, I didn't attend.  What did I miss?

Glaucon: And you call yourself a philosopher!  Fine, I'll tell you.  The democratic faction - to which I happen to belong - proposed a new law to give ten gold pieces a year to every poor Athenian.

Socrates: From the public treasury?

Glaucon: Yes, from the public treasury.  Anyway, we democrats called a vote - and the aristocratic faction voted us down.  How can they be so uncaring?

Socrates: Why do you assume the aristocrats voted No because they were uncaring?  Did they say, "I'm voting No because I don't care about the poor"?

Glaucon: Of course not.  No one admits such things.

Socrates: So, what objections did the aristocrats voice?

Glaucon: Oh, the usual.  They said our meager program would turn poor and rich alike into lazy bums.  The poor wouldn't want to work if they got free money, and the rich wouldn't want to work if they had to pay the taxes required to fund the program.

Socrates: Sounds overstated.  Divide by ten, and they're right.  Any other argument?

Glaucon: Yes.  Many also insisted that, "It's my money."  They earned it, so they shouldn't have to share it.

Socrates: And they're wrong?

Glaucon: Of course they're wrong!  We're a community, we all depend on each other and we're all obliged to take care of each other.  If they had an ounce of compassion for disadvantaged Athenians, they would have voted Yes.

Socrates: Then I have good news for you.

Glaucon: Good news?  What in Greece are you talking about?

Socrates: The good news is that you - and your fellow democrats - can still fulfill your obligations despite the aristocrats' resistance.

Glaucon: What, revolution?

Socrates: No.  Just tell me this: What is your annual income?

Glaucon: A rude question, Socrates.

Socrates: Is it?  If I recall, your poverty law would have required everyone to tell the Assembly their income.

Glaucon: I seem to recall you claimed ignorance of our proposal.  Very well.  I make 1000 gold pieces a year.

Socrates: Glad to know you're prospering.  And what do you need to avoid hunger and homelessness? 

Glaucon: I've got three kids, so 100 gold pieces a year.

Socrates: Seems high, but let's run with it.  You make 1000 gold pieces a year, but only need 100.  That leaves 900 gold pieces a year.

Glaucon: I can do arithmetic, Socrates.

Socrates: Most rich men can.  Here then is my advice: Give your extra 900 gold pieces to the poor.  Urge your fellow democrats to do the same.

Glaucon: Charity?!  Your cure for Athenian poverty is to impoverish me?  Surely you jest.

Socrates: I know you can't personally cure poverty, Glaucon.  But you can save a dozen poor families from their plight.  And when you're done, you'll still live comfortably.

Glaucon: Why should I?

Socrates: Unlike the aristocratic faction, you care about the poor, do you not?

Glaucon: Absolutely.

Socrates: If you have the means to help people you care about, shouldn't you help them?

Glaucon: Sure, if it would do any good.

Socrates: It seems like your 900 gold pieces would do a great deal of good.

Glaucon: Wouldn't cure poverty. 

Socrates: Granted, but so what?  Imagine a father has ten children, but only enough food to keep one alive.  If he cares about his children, what will he do?

Glaucon: [sigh] Pick one child and give him the food.

Socrates: Indeed.  If you truly care for the Athenian poor, you will heed his example.

Glaucon: My poverty law would have helped vastly more than I ever could.

Socrates: Perhaps.  But your path remains clear.  Give your extra 900 gold pieces to the poor.  Then explain your reasons to your fellow caring democrats.

Glaucon: Why should we be singled out for suffering?

Socrates: If you're as caring as you say, you'll suffer more if you keep your money.

Glaucon: Funny, I hadn't noticed I was suffering.

Socrates: Could a caring father eat a feast while his children starved?

Glaucon: [sigh] No.

Socrates: Why not?

Glaucon: Because every bite would remind him that people he cares about need it more.

Socrates: Indeed.  By the way, I don't mind if we continue this conversation tomorrow.

Glaucon: Do you have someplace to be?

Socrates: No, but I thought you might want to run home and donate the 900 gold pieces.  It's hard to talk philosophy when desperate people you care about await your assistance.

Glaucon: If you're going to mock me, go join your aristocratic friends and mock us at the next Assembly.

Socrates: They're not my friends.  Democrats and aristocrats alike sin against philosophy.

Glaucon: Look, why should the aristocrats get to free ride?  They should contribute to solve the problem of poverty just like everyone else.

Socrates: If they're as uncaring as you say, how are they "free riding"?

Glaucon: Don't they benefit from the knowledge that every Athenian has a decent standard of living?

Socrates: Caring people like you benefit from such knowledge, no doubt.  But your heartless aristocratic opponents will take small comfort from this realization.

Glaucon: They may be aristocrats, but they're still human.

Socrates: Hmm, that's the first kind word you've ever had for them, so far as I recall.  I concur.  Aristocrats, like democrats, are not bereft of compassion.

Glaucon: Many even give to charity.

Socrates: According to my friend in the Bureau of Athenian Economic Statistics, aristocrats actually give a higher share of their income than democrats.

Glaucon: Well then!  So they do care and they are free riding after all!

Socrates: Perhaps.  But now I'm more puzzled than ever.

Glaucon: What is it now?

Socrates: When an aristocrat gives 100 gold pieces to the poor, what does it cost him?

Glaucon: 100 gold pieces.

Socrates: Right.  When an aristocrat votes for a measure that raises his taxes by 100 gold pieces, what does that cost him?

Glaucon: 100 gold pieces, again.

Socrates: Does it?  Was last night's proposal decided by a single vote?

Glaucon: No, the final tally was 555 to 450.

Socrates: So if one aristocrat had switched his vote, the final tally would have been 554 to 451?

Glaucon: Correct.

Socrates: And your measure still would have lost?

Glaucon: We are a democracy, Socrates.  So yes.

Socrates: Then it's hard to see how an aristocrat saved any money by voting against your measure.  Whether he voted Yes or No, his taxes stayed the same.

Glaucon: Your point being?

Socrates: Your opponents didn't vote No because they were "uncaring," because any one of them could have switched his vote without paying one copper piece extra.

Glaucon: Maybe they voted No because they foresaw a tiny probability of tipping the election.

Socrates: Perhaps.  But what about all the No voters who donate to charity?  Why would someone willing to hand the poor money out of his own pocket be so eager to guard against a small chance of paying extra taxes to help them?

Glaucon: Don't make me guess.  Just tell me.

Socrates: Very well.  The simplest explanation is that the aristocrats sincerely believe the reasons they stated.  They're worried about disincentives - and they think that whoever earned his money deserves to keep it.

Glaucon: Bah.  If they're so wonderful, they'd happily donate all their surplus riches to the poor, right?

Socrates: I don't remember discussing whether anyone was "wonderful."  But yes, if they deeply cared about the poor, they would give away all their extra income.

Glaucon: But almost no one does that.

Socrates: Then almost no one deeply cares about the poor.

Glaucon: So your point is that democrats and aristocrats are equally bad?

Socrates: A question for another day.  But at least on the issue we're discussing, my point is that you democrats are worse.

Glaucon: Worse?  How could we possibly be worse than them?

Socrates: They live up to their stated principles.  You don't live up to yours.

Glaucon: [huffs]

Socrates: The aristocrats say that people who earned their money deserve to keep it.  That's perfectly consistent with voting against last night's proposal.  And it's perfectly consistent with their failure to give away all the income they don't need.

Glaucon: And we democrats?

Socrates: You say we're obliged to care for all our fellow Athenians.  That's arguably consistent with the way your side voted last night - though you really should look more closely into those disincentive effects.  But your principle is inconsistent with your failure to give away all the income you don't need.

Glaucon: Nobody's perfect.

Socrates: Indeed.  But please remind me, how much did you actually give to charity this year?

Glaucon: Five gold pieces.

Socrates: Then your deviation from your stated principle is extreme.  You should have given 900.  You only did 5/900ths of your duty, leaving 895/900ths undone.

Glaucon: Funny, I don't feel like an awful person.

Socrates: I've never thought so.  But if your moral principles are correct, an awful person is what you are.

Glaucon: Why do I keep arguing with you, Socrates?  There's no need to be rude.

Socrates: I've tried to make my points with utmost civility.  All I'm saying is this: Your principles and your behavior can't both be right.  Change one, and I'll invite the aristocrat of your choice to my next dialogue. 

And don't worry, I'll treat him with utmost civility.

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (48 to date)
E. Harding writes:

Excellent dialogue, from beginning to end.

ThomasH writes:

I agree with Harding.

I think that the rich democrat should have explained that a gold piece donated to charity reduces one's consumption relative to one's peers whereas a tax of one gold piece does not and may not even reduce absolute consumption one for one if the supply of things that rich people consume is inelastic. Therefore it is not irrational for someone to favor taxation for redistribution over and above what he is willing to give to charity.

Bedarz Iliaci writes:

Caplan perhaps misunderstands the democratic argument. State welfare is not charity but justice. The State can not engage in charity. There is no mandate to do so. So whatever, the State does, as a matter of welfare, is a species of justice. The deserving poor really have a claim in justice to their welfare.

It is the undeserving poor that have claims to charity from the individuals. But no claims to charity are possible against the State.

However, it is possible or even probable that the State badly identifies the deserving poor from undeserving ones.

anonymous writes:

[Comments removed for supplying false email address. Email the to request restoring your comment privileges. A valid email address is required to post comments on EconLog and EconTalk.--Econlib Ed.]

Matt Moore writes:

I agree completely with Caplan here. But I'm trying to think of counter arguments.

What if the democrat argued this: "I have time inconsistent preferences. I really do always intend to give 300 gold pieces to the poor, but every year I find myself unable to do so. I want to tie my hands. I tried gifting a personal bond to a charity, but my inconsistency is so great that I just declared bankruptcy. Only by delegating my charity decisions to armed enforcers can I realise my intent."

Seems extreme...

Nathan W writes:

Interesting dialogue, but Socrates never would have had a conversation like this. You should have given them names which represent people who might actually have this conversation.

Frank A writes:

... and that is exactly the point ... in general, the "Democrats" look at "charity" as another Government program whereas the "Aristocrats" believe that charity is an individual action. As with most Government programs, this "charity" is corrupted through the political process so that the deadweight loss is immense. IMHO, devolving each element of the Federal Government down to its lowest possible level (State, County, City, Neighborhood, Home) is one way to allow a "Democratic" community decide to tax the "rich" for "charity" or the "Aristocrats" to decide for themselves. Wasn't that the point of this great nation?

Daniel Kuehn writes:

Bedarz's comment was my first thought. I think speaking of this as charity confuses the issue. Most public transfers have the goal of changing the rewards or opportunities associated with work (or some other activity) or they are targeted at making society fairer. It's not clear what private charity does in either case.

That's not to say I think this is a bad dialogue - I think it does challenge people on the appropriate degree of charity, perhaps helps us think more in terms of Singerian ethics or alternatively just helps us to realize that we just don't believe in that kind of ethics and that maybe that's OK too. It certainly raises real challenges (and not just for Democrats - I doubt anybody gives with that sort of generosity), but I think the way you're trying to hitch it up to public policy is less convincing.

Peter writes:

Glaucon ought to create a foundation that benefits himself and donate the extra 900 gold pieces to that. Then he can say he gave to the poor and many will believe it.

HM writes:

Bad argument. Glaucon could win by following example.

Suppose there are 100,000 rich people and 1,000,0000 poor people in the polis.

Glaucon values poor people's consumption at 50% of his own consumption. He doesn't value rich people's consumption at all, because altruism is a threshold type of preference. So he's a pretty altruistic guy, yet he doesn't give to charity as he values his own consumption more.

Now there's a suggestion of a 1 gold coin tax on the rich people. Given Glaucon's altruism he would value this at 50,000 gold coin in private consumption. It is an amazing deal and he campaigns vigorously for it.

Yet the aristocrats vote against it. And then his conclusion is that they either:

a) Care less than 10^(-5) as much about poor people as themselves.

b) Value the consumption of other rich people quite high as well.

If Glaucon cares 50% about poor people, and the aristocrats less than 10^(-5), has he not a right to complain about their egotism?

Steve J writes:

I love HM's argument. Finally a reasonable explanation for why it makes sense to believe in taxation to help the poor but not personal charity. Is there something wrong with it that I am missing?

Jasperian writes:

An issue missing from this discussion: Among the differences between leaving subsidies to the poor to the charitable decisions of the rich vs. enforcing them via taxes is that the former leaves the charitable rich worse off compared to their uncharitable peers. Taxation doesn't.

If a generous rich person gives away money, he's less able to make investments and accumulate further wealth. If his ungenerous peer doesn't give (much) to charity, he'll carry on getting richer. Extrapolate the trend and in the end, it'll be the selfish bastards who have all the wealth. Bad people will own everything.

Wealth is a score-keeping system for market power, and there are markets for literally everything - including the loyalty of politicians, killers, bankers and whores. So if subsidising the poor is left as an individual decision, ultimately this favours the total victory of selfish and ungenerous people -- sociopaths lacking empathy. They'll gain control over the political system as well as the economy (as we're seeing with the Koch Brothers, Sheldon Adelson et al.).

That's an excellent reason for generous rich people as well as everyone else to favour taxation rather than individual charity as the principal mechanism for subsidising the poor.

Jesse writes:

Steve J: I care about my neighbor's consumption more than 10^(-5) of my own, but I don't buy him food ever, because he can buy his own, and he does. In my old, old neighborhood, many just didn't work and I didn't like the idea of them not having cars. But many of them would rather drink what little beer/malt liquor they could afford than to work and have an abundance of... beer and malt liquor or other things.

Depicting the typical recipient of transfer payments as a starving person is a strawman, frankly. Because one person chooses to trade their time and effort for money more than another does doesn't automatically mean they don't care about the other unless they trade some of their time for the other person's benefit.

mobile writes:

Every liberal consuming more than a subsistence income is a hypocrite, just like every libertarian that once used a public highway.

Daniel Kendrick writes:

Steve J:

There is a very big problem with HM's argument.

I'm not exactly sure what he means by Glaucon's valuing poor people's consumption at 50% of his own. (For example, if the utility of each one of the poor counts 50%, they vastly outnumber him.) But since he says that Glaucon gives nothing to the poor, I'm going to take that as meaning that he would prefer spending even his marginal gold piece on himself—twice as much as he would like spending it on any particular poor person.

Given that, Glaucon should always prefer to keep his gold coin rather than spend it on the poor. It doesn't matter what everyone else does. It is irrelevant whether he would prefer the other rich people to give their money to the poor rather than keeping it themselves.

HM's argument makes it seem like there is some kind of economic deal Glaucon makes with the aristocrats: he pays 1 gold piece, and in return they pay 50,000. That would be a good deal, but that's not how it works. Whether Glaucon pays is irrelevant to whether they pay. Even if he can't evade the law and skip out on his payment (as is in his interest), his payment is not causally responsible for the 50,000.

Moreover, even if Glaucon supports a public tax on the wealthy, why should the proceeds go to the poor? By stipulation, Glaucon prefers even the most marginal use of his money twice as much as spending it on the poor. Perhaps he will not be able to convince the assembly to give all the money to him, but if he likes the theater, why not spend it on the theater?

khodge writes:

Bedarz and Kuehn are both trying to muddy the waters with semantics: The deserving poor have a claim in justice? Which are the deserving poor? What is the "justice" that they deserve? How is that not charity?

I have heard many poor people lay claim to justice/fairness and the right to be treated identically to a wealthy person. They do not share the lifestyles of the wealthy, especially in foregoing current pleasure for future benefits (basic economic choices). How is the state being "just" in these circumstances that is any different from them being "charitable?"

This conversation captures the problems with "charity" and "justice" very well.

Jesse writes:

HM: In your scenario, assume all aristocrats held Glaucon's values. If the proposal was for aristocrats to give 10,000 gold coins apiece, then Glaucon would value this at half a billion gold coins, and would campaign maybe more vigorously for it. In fact, because the number of aristocrats is high, every additional gold coin gets multiplied by 50,000, which means every additional gold coin taxed is a great deal.

More amusing is that this is true if there is only one poor person!

Daniel Kendrick writes:


The point of the post, I think, is that "liberals" are hypocrites in a way that libertarians aren't.

There is nothing hypocritical about a libertarian using a public highway. Libertarianism (arguably) says that public highways shouldn't exist. It doesn't say that it's immoral to use them if they exist. Maybe some extreme deontological libertarians would say that, but neither utilitarian nor egoistic libertarians would agree with them.

Libertarianism, as such, says nothing about whether personally using any inefficient government program is immoral. The questions of whether public schools are, overall, better for the country—and whether you, personally, would be better off sending your kids to them—are entirely different. (This runs both ways: it is silly to condemn rich leftists for sending their kids to elite private schools. They might very well think elite private schools are better for their kids, while public schools are better for the poor masses unable to afford elite private schools.)

On the other hand, I take it to be the point of the blog post that "liberals" don't really care that much about the poor, or else they would donate more to them.

It is absurd to say, analogously, "libertarians don't really care that much about driving on private roads, or else they would avoid driving on government roads." Of course! They don't care that much! Libertarians only think that, overall, we would be better with private roads. But they don't regard it as a moral offense to drive on such public roads as do exist.

Rob42 writes:

I think HM has the model for Glaucon right. The real value to Glaucon is forcing others to give to charity as well. Isn't this the same as any public good (we all benefit from not having people starving in the street)? I want a public park to play in, but not enough that I would pay for the whole thing. Nevertheless, I'm more than willing to pay 1/Nth the cost while forcing N-1 other people to do the same.

mobile writes:

TL;DR When I am a hypocrite, it's because I have good reasons, or because you are using the wrong definition of hypocrisy.

Nino writes:

This was such a bad dialogue I don't know where to start. It's heavily based on Socrates winding facts around in order to appear intelligent, when it's really quite simple: those who are better off should give a higher proportion of their money to taxes or the poor, because they wouldn't be rich had the population not been buying that person's services/produce in the first place.

Should the rich person find a way not to pay their fair share of contribution to society...well, that person better hope that he will stay rich for a long time, because if he becomes poor he will discover how hard life is when he receives no help from anyone.

Daniel Kendrick writes:


There are two definitions of hypocrisy. The original (and better) definition is: pretending to have beliefs/behaviors that you don't actually have. The modern misuse is: not practicing what you preach (this is a misuse because you can believe something is wrong and still do it; e.g. because you are weak-willed).

Under neither of these definitions are libertarians hypocrites. They do pretend not to drive on the roads as an example of their great virtue. And they do not preach that you shouldn't drive on the roads, so they can hardly be called hypocrites for not practicing what they don't preach.

And this doesn't just apply to libertarians. I don't regard it as hypocritical on the part of communists that they go out and buy posters at Wal-Mart for their rallies. There is nothing in communism, as such, that says you can't use materials produced by capitalism to destroy it. That's sort of the whole Marxist theory: that capitalism provides the means of abolishing itself.


The argument for giving to the poor on the grounds that you might be poor yourself one day is very weak. Hardly any rich people ever become poor in their lifetimes.

Certainly, it would be foolish for you to say to me that I ought to give money to the homeless, on the grounds that I might become homeless. There is an approximately 0% chance that I will ever be homeless. So if that is the only argument for giving to the homeless, I should give them nothing. Moreover, I should urge the abolition not only of welfare but also of private charity helping them. (Again, if the only reason for helping them were that I might become one someday.)

Also, the fact that the rich "wouldn't be rich had the population not been buying that person's services/produce in the first place" is a non sequitur when arguing for taxation and charity. Yes, the rich get rich because people buy their services. But the common people buy their services with money they earn by productive work.

If I understand you right, you seem to be saying that we tax/collect money from the rich and give it to the poor, so that the poor can buy goods from the rich. But no one ever got rich by paying people to buy his products. If I own a restaurant and give you a $50 gift card to eat a $50 meal there, I do not make any money. My net cash flow is $0, and I lose the value of the meal.

Brian writes:

"those who are better off should give a higher proportion of their money to taxes or the poor, because they wouldn't be rich had the population not been buying that person's services/produce in the first place. "


Why should anyone be obligated to give their wealth to the poor? People who accumulate in a free market are being rewarded for providing society with something of value. They took some resources and made them worth more. They get to keep their money because we expect that they can use it to create even more value. Why should the money be given to the poor, who have shown no evidence of doing anything useful with it? Letting the wealthy keep their money is a way of ensuring a more efficient distribution of resources, which is the point of economics. Giving to the poor likely makes the distribution less efficient.

zeke5123 writes:


I can see your argument as explaining why Glaucon may want to argue for a tax while not giving any money himself to the poor. Basically, if Glaucon disregards the disutility of the aristocrats, then it makes sense. But that hardly seems...moral. After all, do the rich not bleed when they are pricked? Are they not human?

Steve J writes:

For people responding to HM's argument remember that the utility of a dollar spent/taxed for the poor by Glaucon is probably non-linear. The value of those dollars is going to decline to zero as there is more impact on Glaucon's lifestyle. So it's not like this line of reasoning will end up with Glaucon giving all of his money away. This is literally just a math problem - as most problems should be.

@Daniel I am not sure where you are going with the causality argument. We are debating whether or not Glaucon should support a tax. The cause is the tax law not Glaucon contributing his money.

AS writes:

Dear Bryan,

This is one of the best pieces of yours that I have ever read. You should publish a book of socratic dialogues. I would also like to see how Socrates responds to occupational licensing, tariffs, public schooling, The Affordable Care Act, luddism, social security, etc. This reminds me of Russ Robert's collection of economic "novels".

Jesse writes:

Steve J:

I follow you with the diminishing value, but the way HM framed the logic, suppose Glaucon is given the freedom to name his quantity. He decides that each aristocrat will give N gold. Now we can say:

1. If Glaucon started with M gold, then after giving N gold, Glaucon has M-N gold and now cares ZERO for the poor.

2. What if another aristocrat, Ariston, was worth M-N before the proposed transfer, and this aristocrat wanted to keep their one piece of gold. Is Glaucon better than Ariston because he wanted the policy, even though he is effectively equally selfish at a level of M-N? Why should Ariston have less than Glaucon? That seems downright wrong. Let Glaucon and the richer aristocrats pay for it all, right?

Steve J writes:


We have not yet included Glaucon's concern for the other aristocrats into our utility function. It is possible he believes the tax should apply only to those who make as much as he does. I think the key takeaway here is that in Glaucon's moral framework his decision to support a tax yet not private charity is appropriate and not hypocritical.

We might deduce that Glaucon is not a libertarian since he is willing to support redistribution at all. The utility function for a libertarian might put infinite weight on not impacting the other aristocrats so private charity would be the only option. This hypothetical libertarian may say Glaucon's moral framework is wrong but Glaucon is still not a hypocrite.

mobile writes:

Somewhere in the liberal blogosphere, someone is penning an imaginary but witty exchange between Socrates and Zeno of Elea, pointing out how Zeno's practices are inconsistent, detrimental even, to the culture of liberty and free enterprise that Zeno preaches. The discussion seems so absurd to a libertarian, who can point out a dozen ways that Socrates and even Zeno mischaracterize his position. But most readers nod along in agreement, wondering how anyone could stand in the face of such a compelling, relentlessly logical article and not change their views. Everyone will continue to talk past one another and wonder why their side doesn't seem to be getting any traction.

Jesse writes:


Ok, let me change it a bit to make my point. After Glaucon gives his N gold, if Ariston wants to give until he has less than Glaucon, he has the right to complain about Glaucon's egotism.

Basically, the person who stops giving at a lower level of personal wealth may rightly complain about all other givers being greedy, as at that point, they all see further wealth transfer as valueless.

Steve J writes:


Agree. No matter how much you give it will never be enough to someone. But that complainer may still be logically consistent. At this point I am still on HM's side. Jasperian offers another good argument for why the rich may prefer taxation to charity.

This is all based on the belief that charity/redistribution will help the poor in the long run. I am not sure that is true.

Steve J writes:


Sorry for misspelling your name multiple times.

Alex writes:

Putting aside the "does taxation or charity actually help the poor" bit, I think the consistency argument is a bit of a straw man.

Glaucon's "stated principal" is that "If you have the means to help people you care deeply about, you should do it". The rest of the argument hinges on implicit definitions of "means" and "deeply"...means = "anything more than necessity"...deeply = "enough to give them anything more than necessity". But who actually believes this?

You can consistently believe everyone should give some percentage of their income to help the poor, but still not give away 90% of your income. Not just on grounds of justice (e.g. Rawls), but simply on more nuanced grounds of what it means to care deeply about the poor and to do what you can to help.

Jesse writes:


Logically consistent, maybe technically. But logical consistency doesn't mean "not absurd to reasonable people," which is where I think the line of reasoning falls flat on its face.

And no problem about the name - happens all the time. :)

Edogg writes:

Prof. Caplan says and has said on other occasions that utilitarianism implies that people who don't maximize utility are awful people. I don't think that quite follows. I think utilitarianism is mostly about just asking "What are the consequences?" Prof. Caplan often seems to interpret that as "Here is the new standard for judging people." "Here is the new definition of your duty."

It seems unrealistic and manipulative to have Glaucon only give 5 gold bars. How do their arguments seem if Glaucon gave 100 gold bars?

Daniel Kendrick, I applaud your point about it not being hypocritical for libertarians to use public schools or leftists not to use public schools. I would also have no problem with those opposed to embryonic stem cell research to benefit from that research.

HM writes:

I'm sorry I was a bit sloppy. The natural way of course is that Glaucon puts a weight on the utility function of poor people, i.e. that Glaucon's preferences are

u(c_me) + beta*sum_i u(c_i)

where beta is an altruism parameter.

When Glaucon makes the decision about one more dollar in taxes, he assumes poor people will get


in consumption where R is the number of rich people and P is the number of poor people.

When Glaucon makes a decision about one more dollars in charity, he assumes poor people will get

c_i + 1/P

Easy comparative statics shows that if R is big, Glaucon will want much larger taxes than he gives in private charity. Second, if rich people do not want taxes, their altruism weight beta must be very low. And third, of course there is free-riding between altruistic people if it is difficult to coordinate. Suppose R' rich people are altruistic; the non-coordinated amount of charity is much lower than the coordinated because Charity is a public good.

Daniel Kendrick writes:


All you're arguing is that Glaucon would rather other people's money be spent on the poor than let them spend it on themselves.

In other words, he puts no value on their preferences, puts himself in the dictatorial role of being able to allocate all resources, and decides he would rather the poor have those resources than the rich.

That is not altruism. It is "altruism with other people's money", and egoism with one's own. It's very easy to be "altruistic" with tax money; that's why left-wing politicians are perceived as such caring and generous people.

So his "altruism parameter" has nothing to do with it. All you're measuring is the extent to which he favors giving other rich people's money to the poor, rather than letting them keep it.

By your stipulation, he doesn't want to give his own money to the poor. He only gives the 1 gold piece because he the law makes him. If he could have a special tax exemption for himself, he would prefer it.

HM writes:

Daniel Kendrick:

I'm arguing that Glaucon would be ready *to pay* other people to pay poor people money. This is what imposing a tax on you and other rich people amounts to. You lose a dollar, they lose a dollar.

You could argue that he would love even more to impose a tax on everyone else but himself, but that is not what a tax is, and thus not the topic of the dialogue.

And given that the decision is an up or down vote for a uniform tax, the altruism parameter is of course key. Had he not had any regards for poor people, his desired tax would be zero. He would not have been willing to pay any money to make other people pay money.

Floccina writes:

I agree with Bryan but a Democrat could say that he cares much more about relative wealth than absolute wealth. He does not care if others are poor or rich or whatever but he wants more equality of income, wealth and opportunity. He cares too much about his own relative position to give money away unless all above him also give.

AMT writes:


HM, you simply describe a "selfish utilitarian." You can be selfish and want the rich to give to the poor (assuming the disincentive effects are not large).

I think the point of Bryan's post is that liberals like to act like they are so caring (selfless) by supporting redistribution, but in reality their actions are very selfish, even more so than the right, which makes them hypocrites.

Michael Miller writes:

When it comes to helping the poor, there really is a difference between social justice and private charity, and each has its place. Social justice is justice and therefore public and obligatory, or should be legally. Charity is essentially private and, though morally obligatory in some circumstances, should not be legally obligatory.

Social justice includes the part of the theory of property rights that provides a *quid pro quo* to the poor and propertyless to make up for the exclusive private rights in land and natural resources granted to those who own them. When the law (quite rightly) grants private rights in land and natural resources, thus allowing the owner to exclude others from using that land, it gives an unearned and undeserved boon to the owner and diminishes the rights of the poor when there is not as much and as good for them to use, unless the land is subject to taxation to give the poor some reasonably equivalent substitute that provides them the same independence and freedom and economic foundation they would have if they too owned land. That independence and freedom and economic foundation are the grounds within the theory of property rights for allowing exclusive private rights in land and natural resources. Recognizing those legitimate grounds, any theory of property rights would be clunky and unfair if it provided for some but not all people to enjoy access to the natural means of production and life without needing the private consent of others. That taxation would not provide the landowners any disincentive to work. The support it gives the propertyless would not provide them any disincentive to work that a grant of land would not provide.

Anything beyond social justice is a matter of private charity. Surely, someone can reasonably be in favor of social justice and criticize those who oppose it, and be willing to require that they pay their fair share despite their opposition, yet still not give away everything beyond his subsistence needs through private charity.

pgbh writes:

HM's point is perfectly reasonable. Glaucon not giving to charity doesn't mean he doesn't care about the poor. It just means he cares less about them than about himself. Sure you can skewer him for that, but I doubt he would ever have claimed otherwise.

The point that probably interests people more is, do people who voted "yes" in the assembly care more about the poor? Well, at least people who voted "yes" probably really did care about helping the poor, at least a little bit. People who voted "no" might care as well, and think a "no" vote is the best way to do that, or they might not care at all. So at least probabilistically, "yes" voters seem more likely to care.

Now is that also true of Glaucon's analogues - modern-day progressives? I'm not sure I buy that. At least Glaucon's fellow "yes" voters were voting for a measure with some cost to themselves. So they were willing to pay at least a little bit to help others. On the other hand, most progressives won't even do that - they want "the rich" to foot the bill.

And of course, is caring about the poor really that great anyway, especially when you generally just mean the poor of your own nation and ethnic group? Robin Hanson wouldn't call that obvious:

Brian S. writes:

Re. justice and undeserved misfortunes, I recommend Thomas Sowell's essay, The Quest for Cosmic Justice, adapted from the book of the same title.

Matt writes:

HM is exactly right here, and it's a little dispiriting that libertarian critiques spend so little time contending with his argument. (I know this argument well, because back when I was an across-the-board progressive it was a key part of my ideological and intellectual arsenal. I still respect its internal logic and fundamental appeal, and my partial opposition to progressivism today comes mainly from other sources.)

I suppose that the "why don't you give to charity yourself?" jeer does establish that a progressive is actually "selfish", in the sense that he's not willing at the margin to spend any more of his own resources on the very people that he proclaims to be needy. But it remains consistent with the possibility that the progressive is less selfish than the non-progressive, in the sense that he (at least!) values a poor person's welfare at some small fraction of his own, rather than at an infinitesimal fraction.

By the way, no lesser an authority than Milton Friedman in Capitalism and Freedom endorsed a version of this point:

It can be argued that private charity is insufficient because the benefits from it accrue to people other than those who make the gifts - again, a neighborhood effect. I am distressed by the sight of poverty; I am benefited by its alleviation; but I am benefited equally whether I or someone else pays for its alleviation; the benefits of other people's charity therefore partly accrue to me. To put it differently, we might all of us be willing to contribute to the relief of poverty, provided everyone else did. We might not be willing to contribute the same amount without such assurance. In small communities, public pressure can suffice to realize the proviso even with private charity. In the large impersonal communities that are increasingly coming to dominate our society, it is much more difficult for it to do so.
followed by...
Suppose one accepts, as I do, this line of reasoning as justifying governmental action to alleviate poverty; to set, as it were, a floor under the standard of life of every person in the community. There remain the questions, how much and how. I see no way of deciding "how much" except in terms of the amount of taxes we - by which I mean the great bulk of us - are willing to impose on ourselves for the purpose. The question, "how," affords more room for speculation.

Peter Hovde writes:

Flaucon, Glaucon’s smarter, equally rich, somewhat less skinflint brother:

Hey there, Socrates. I also supported the legislation at issue, and though I do give more than Glaucon here, your argument, if it is valid, applies to me as to him. Now, a note about the scope of issues we’re discussing. I expect that some part of your answer to my comments will involve the morality of “violent” redistribution, but your primary argument would apply to us Democrats even if we just exhorted people to re-distribute, since it’s based on an alleged mismatch between our principles and our practice.

This argument appears to be based on a certain concept of “care.” Namely, a concept of care as near or absolute non-partiality-if I claim to care about person X, or group X, that must mean that I care about (X) as much as I care about myself, or any other non (X). That is how we could get to the result that failure to equalize myself with the hypothetical recipient families would mean that I do not care about them at all. Fair enough, but that is simply a radical re-definition of care, since people, in the ordinary course of events, not only say that they care about different people differently, but act as if they care more about some than others. But does this mean that their claim to care about those others is false? Let’s explore-

Suppose that I subscribe to the rather mundane view that, as a rule, people should not be burnt to death. I pass a burning structure, and it seems to me that the people inside are almost certainly going to burn to death. Now, I’m certainly ready to take some (I’m not sure how much), risk in order to save them, but in your theory, “some risk” won’t cut it. Let’s say that I could reduce their odds of burning to death to 50/50, but I could only do so by taking action that also puts me at a 50/50 risk of burning to death. If I decline this, it means (according to your formulation) that I do not care about them at all. OK, as long as we’ve got our models of “care” and “principles” clear.

Michael Miller writes:

I don’t think this dialogue was just. The democrat should justify his vote for public support of the poor by it being what justice requires, to correct the injustice under which the poor are suffering (I assume that the “10 gold coins” is to stand for any reasonable support program).

It seems that many look at this issue only from the private perspectives of people considering what they like as regards resource allocation within the society. Just as Bob likes coffee, he likes poor people to have gold coins. The problem with poverty is that people with money are distressed by the sight of it, as Uncle Miltie said, and due to the free rider problem, there is insufficient charity.

But that’s a poor basis on which to justify public support for the poor. It is rather to correct the injustice under which the poor are suffering from being denied access to the natural means of production and life without getting someone else’s permission. That deprives them of their freedom and independence and some of their physical support, and also diminishes their negotiating positions. The democrats want to end or at least correct this injustice, and complain that the aristocrats don’t care about this injustice and the resulting plight of the poor.

This is about an injustice and the public or public-spirited desire to end it, not about the private desire to see the poor have as much money as possible. To question the democrats’ sincerity on this issue of justice on the grounds that they do not give of their own to correct the injustice, is akin to questioning the sincerity of those who want to end the injustice against millions who are incarcerated for possession of controlled substances, on the grounds that they do not volunteer to take their places in prisons on their days off and vacation days (let’s assume the law allows people to reduce a prisoner’s sentence by a day for each day one stays in prison voluntarily). Those who vote against freeing the prisoners jeer at those who vote in favor, and aim to justify their own “no” vote with: “If you really cared about the prisoners and this alleged injustice, you’d be spending your days off and vacation days in prison to reduce their sentences.” Those who want to free the prisoners reply: “This is an injustice! It should be ended, not spread around! Why should those who seek to end it have to suffer it themselves? How can you not care about this?” It’s not a perfect analogy, but I think it suffices to make the point. Who cares less: those who want to maintain the injustice and refuse even to recognize it, or those who seek to end it and won’t suffer some of it themselves?

Peter Gerdes writes:

I think you make a subtle mistake in the dialog.

When Socrates suggests that Glaucon would suffer more from not donating if he is as caring as he claims and later that the aristocrats are not free riding he is tacitly assuming that to care about group X is for your utility to be strongly affected by changes in their utility. Even setting aside the extreme version assumed by Socrates (you gain more utility from giving the poor your extra money than keeping it) this claim is clearly false.

For instance if I say I care greatly about not cheating on my wife that means I feel a strong moral obligation not to cheat and I take substantial effort to avoid cheating. It doesn't force me to believe that if I started an affair I wouldn't actually be happier.

When we say we care about something in a moral context we don't mean that out utility is closely tied to outcomes in that matter. We are expressing our strong regard for moral norms about the matter and our willingness to enforce them (shaming etc..).

Indeed, a great many quite reasonable moral philosophers have championed moral theories on which enforcing a rule about everyone contributing to the poor really is more important than making sure they get as much gold as possible while claiming that such a rule is indeed what follows from moral concern over the welfare of the poor.


Just as an asethetic point I found the implication the aristocrats were voting for reasons closely connected to the policy outcomes of their proposals pretty silly. We know NO ONE really behaves that way in a body of any reasonable size and it's mainly other factors which influence individuals.

Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top