From Civics to Morals
George Mason University economist Bryan Caplan and UNC professor Karl Smith are debating the question: “How deserving are the poor?” Insofar as providing desert to the poor is a policy issue, Smith argues:
My thesis may be best understood this way:
There is no reason to view emotional or mental deficiencies as different in kind from physical ones. To put it in the harshest of terms, if you think someone who is born blind is deserving of sympathy and support then you should think someone who is born lazy and stupid is deserving of sympathy and support.
Further once you concede that the lazy and stupid are deserving of sympathy then its difficult to construct a set of poor people who are not, since these are among the least sympathetic qualities that could cause someone to be poor.
Thus virtually the vast majority of the poor are deserving of sympathy or support.
Smith and Caplan will do the debate squad thing while I will go in a slightly different direction. But the rejoinder I would make to Smith’s point – that the lazy are as deserving of sympathy and support as the blind – is that laziness can be incentivized or disincentivized whereas blindness can not. If someone is naturally lazy, we’d get more laziness by providing support for them. A blind person is just as blind regardless of our provision or our neglect.
But to my tangent, the problem, as I’ve laid out before, is that the federal government attenuates the magnanimity of the sympathetic impulse. To clean that statement up a bit: the feds steal the credit for sympathy granting and support provision, and they blur the entire exchange. This is the Costanzean “Big Salad” argument against federal government intervention in transfer payments, charity, or poverty relief. There is free-riding, misplaced thanks, and resentment all around.
What these middle men do, in effect, is set up a black box with inputting tax-payers on one side and output-receiving poor on the other. The machine through which sympathy i.e. money, is pushed jumbles up and strips both the sympathy and the humility from the entire transfer. The Feds are a Cyclops with horse blinders. They are devoid of judgment and classification, yet what is a more essential human tendency than judging and classifying? The people gaining on the other side of box are then viewed as unworthy of the sympathy portion of the act, and it becomes a case of “Show me the money” rather than “thank you”.
Along with this comes the debilitating “Can’t judge me” culture. If the government is handing out payments without judgment, and if no sympathy/humility is attached to the act, recipients are saved from their humility. Once that constraint is loosened, shamelessness and “can’t judge me” follows.
Contra Smith – whose forthright assessment of the cognitively or behaviorally deficient is refreshing in a liberal; he accepts the importance of IQ and heritability – who admits that the vectors of communication are flawed. With a blind person or a mentally retarded person, we can clearly observe the need for support. A poor person, not so much. As Smith lays out, a poor person can easily free ride on the poverty or the disability of others. If being poor literally provides a free lunch, a person can feign poverty, embrace the characteristics of the poor, or remain mired in poverty instead of seeking upward mobility. However, people are not willing to gouge out their eyeballs to achieve the same ends ‘enjoyed’ by the blind (though I have heard stories of gypsies who will maim themselves in order to increase the amount of sympathy i.e. money they receive. I saw an armless man outside of Notre Dame in Paris and was told that this was his strategy; I don’t know how much I believe that).
What has fallen away a la Charles Murray is the widespread aversion to shame. Part of “can’t judge me” is that people can do shameless things and don’t understand how wrong they are. Whereas people have always been shameless, there was never a cultural ethos which provided post hoc rationalizations for those shameless acts. Taking that governor away allows a feedback into the shameful act to the point that behaviors are stripped of all notions of shame. “It is what it is” once described outcomes; now it describes behaviors – as if both are outside of our control.
So for a conservative or a libertarian, it’s not about “hating the poor” or the disabled and not wanting to provide for them. It’s about not trusting those who might feign poverty or who are not trying as hard as they might. To bring up Murray again, we observe a lacks attitude towards industriousness and work. Comparing poverty today to poverty of bygone eras is not controlling for the quality of inputs. Are the so-called poor today trying nearly as hard as the poor of yesterday? By most accounts, the answer seems to be ‘no’.
The resistance on the part of the Right and net taxpayers stems from their inability to know who is actually poor or who is free-riding on the poor. The poor are probably happy to have more among their ranks. This improves their political power and exposes the issues that they deal with. But with that attention comes fraud. And when it becomes widely accepted that you can’t judge the actual intractable poor or cognitively/behaviorally deficient – well, that provides nice cover for those who don’t really want to push themselves too hard.
So to make a trite and probably difficult-to-implement suggestion, we need to resurrect the ability for benefactors to provide for the poor and actually feel good about doing so. Obligation must be taken away, as must free-riding on the “real” poor and truly debilitated.