“How deserving are the poor?”

Next Wednesday night, Bryan Caplan will debate Karl Smith on that topic at GMU.  For background, here is a relevant short essay by Karl.

From the perspective of “common sense morality,” the poor, in wealthy countries at least, are responsible for quite a bit of their difficulties.  I believe Bryan stresses this factor, although I am less sure how he treats common sense morality when he disagrees with it.

Yet other perspectives must be brought to bear.  There is determinism, at differing levels, ranging from “it’s tough to come from a broken home” to “lead poisoning is bad for you” to “what if the universe is a frozen four-dimensional Einsteinian/Parmenidean block of space-time?”  (Ethics does look different when you are traveling at the speed of light.)

There is the view that desert simply is not very relevant for a lot of our choices.  We still may wish to aid the undeserving.  Matt Yglesias adds relevant comment.

What about utility?  Corrupt societies are inefficient, frustrating, and infuriating, but is more meritocracy utility-enhancing at all margins?  I doubt it.  Chess is a relative meritocracy, with clear standards for performance and achievement, but I am not sure that chess players as a whole are happier for this.  Some ambiguity in one’s level of achievement can be socially useful and somewhat of a relief at the personal level.  Life in a sheer meritocracy would be psychologically oppressive.

What about multiple equilibria and self-fulfilling prophecies (pdf, very interesting paper at first glance I have not read it yet)?

The goal of discussions of desert is to improve on common sense morality, without straying so far from it that the proposed reforms are unworkable or unsustainable.  Views on merit and desert are also incentives, and they must slot into *someone’s* common sense morality if they are to be applied and carried forward.

In this area, it is easy to stomp on the views of other people.  It is harder to synthesize these factors, and others, in a way that is defensible or even explicable in terms of a coherent approach.  Where does the commensurability across the different factors come from?  How much room or slack does common sense morality give us to operate at all?

What if we turned out not to deserve meritocracy?  What would then be the meritocratic thing to do?


My dictionary doesn't show "desert" as having any definitions relating to "deserving." Is this a bad search-and-replace?

I think he means dessert

It's the same word as in the phrase "just deserts". It comes from the same root as the word "deserve".


Scroll down to find desert^3

Today my sloppy page reading skills make me especially wish for a comment-edit feature.

Desert (accent on second syllable) is an equivalent, shorter way to say "deservingness". It, and the one in "just deserts", have the same root.

"When I say we should lock up violent people, I'm not justifying it by desert." = "... i'm not justifying it by [their] deservingness [of being treated that way]."


Oops - that was reply to Dan Weber above.

Minor oops -- as you wrote.

Major plus -- your citation shows that Tyler's simple-looking title question is *very* complicated, and we should not expect agreement with any simplistic answer.

I think, buried in that ramble, was the implication that having someone to blame is welfare enhancing, thus injustice is a public good.

People often make serious mistakes when considering the interaction between determinism and ethics.

"if (punishment_is_likely()) behave(); else if (had_bad_upbringing()) kill_someone();" is a deterministic program. Under a naive definition of free will, this program obviously has no free will, so how could you think it deserving of punishment?

Yet, equally obviously, punishing such programs for misbehavior is a really good idea. Even if some copies of the program for which had_bad_upbringing()==false proceed to handwringing_about(desert) afterwards.

Presumably, those who think the malefactors deserving of punishment (despite their lack of free will) are themselves void of free will, and could do no other.

Funny, but i just had a conversation with a woman who served on a jury for a teenage vandal. The girl was home schooled and kept under mom's thumb. As a teenager, she became rebellious and joined a group of anarchists. Her rampant and hateful graffiti was done openly, suggesting a cry for attention. Well, she got it with federal hate crime charges. The jury strayed into the teenager's upbringing, some sympathizing with her and others sympathizing with the mother who "didnt raise her to be that kind of child."

But the jury was brought back to Earth by the more logical thinkers. The issue wasn't whether she had a bad upbringing, but rather did she do the destructive and hateful things of which she was accused.

I also talked with a pregnant woman with two small children. She was going to court to testify in a parole for her "baby daddy" who also had two boys with another woman. He was a career criminal who was back in jail days after getting out. The woman, who was a reformed ex con, knew he was trouble and wanted to make her own way, but she kept going back with him and having babies. Her children were nicely dressed, quiet and polite, but they spent their day at the county courthouse to meet their jumpsuit daddy.

Those girls deserve better, but they won't know any better. They'll probably make the same choices mom made. But it's their choice. Choice is what makes us uniquely human, and imposing punishment for social wrongdoing is how we manage or modify choices. If the system is unfair, then the feedback mechanism for choices sends the wrong signals. People respond to the incentives and signals they are given.

For the poor, the question turns on opportunity and fairness. If they had the opportunity to get an education, find honest work, and make good choices, then the consequences are entirely on them. It doesn't mean every good effort must or will be rewarded, and there may be random acts of undeserved punishment. But it takes a long train of abuses and foreclosure of liberty and opportunity before I believe a person has a right to say, "life was not fair to me" as justification for acts that would otherwise be criminal. Our Declaration of Independence said as much.

The guilty almost always cry injustice. It takes wise people and fair processes to discern when justice exists and when it does not. If we permit ourselves to believe there is no free will, an exhaustion of good choices, inherent injustice, and relative morality at the margin, then we might as well do away will all pretense and stop paying for the folly of government. Anarchy would be mankind's natural and BEST state of nature.

Just curious, contemporary anarchism in the US generally stays pretty far from the type of hate speech which would be federally indictable. Was this a group of Hooligans, maybe? Or a group who hasn't self corrected based on internal anarchist self-critique?

Viewing the issue purely through a lens of "morality" (what do the poor "deserve" from society) leaves out an extremely important question, namely what sort of overall society do you get with different answers to the question? Having spent time in European cities, I think that the quality of life for the non-poor is significantly higher in places where there is an effective social safety net providing a higher minimum standard of living. Our inability to get past the moral dimension - demonizing the poor as "welfare queens", the long-term unemployed as lazy and talking about Obama as the "food stamp president" - gives us a very suboptimal outcome, including for the non-poor who suffer lousy schools and dangerous inner cities as side effects.

Yesterday's New York Times had a very interesting article (http://nyti.ms/zM610F) on the history of the Pruitt-Igoe housing project in St. Louis, and how the effort to create and attractive (subsidized) community for the poor was sabotaged by "morality"-based restrictions such as bans on an "able bodied male" living in the apartment of a welfare-dependent woman (enforced by roving nighttime monitors!), and absence of funding for upkeep after the construction was done, presumably due to the bad politics of "maintenance" spending on the poor that doesn't produce anything new and shiny. What was initially a major step up in housing for its early residents decayed eventually into a warren of drug dens and vandalized buildings.

Well it would be nice to see some actual evidence on that. Do non-poor people actually suffer from lousy schools and dangerous inner cities? Would more welfare solve those problems? It certainly seems that no amount of money given to actual schools would solve the problem.

It's not the money-to-schools issue. I live in a community with a very wide spread in socioeconomic status and have children at the single high school serving the whole city (Berkeley, CA). What they witness is a cultural divide that reflects - I think - the overall social impact of decades of a very limited social safety net. The point I was trying to make, perhaps not so effectively, is that a strong social safety net leads to a society with a different character than a purely laissez faire, darwinian one. And my own preference, based solely on personal observation, is for the former over the latter, even if it means that my own individual resources are less.

Compare any major European downtown to Oakland, or even San Francisco: both bay area cities have large areas of squalor and decay that you wouldn't want to be in after dark, close to their cores. I'm not trying to idealize the European experience - they have their share of problems. But I do see plenty of visible evidence that a more egalitarian society is a nicer place for the average upper middle class person to live than what we've got here.

But that's a bad comparison.

Downtown European cities are often among the wealthier and tourist safe areas. Go to the suburbs or out of the way parts of Paris, Berlin, Zurich and you'll see a very different Europe plagued by crime and misery particularly among the immigrant populations.

I've had friends visit from nice parts of France and Denmark only to be shocked about how nice and safe even some of the worst parts of Phoenix felt. Meanwhile walking around Zurich at 2 am I got trailed for a mile by a couple of guys whos offer of drugs I had refused earlier.

There exists a very real selection bias in most traveling, and while the US has many bad parts, this comparison just doesn't hold water.

Do non-poor people actually suffer from lousy schools and dangerous inner cities?

...of course. You have to live with these people. They are fellow drivers on your roads, they sit on your juries, they vote in your elections, they staff your police departments, fire departments, and nursing homes. These are people who take it into their own hands to fix their boilers and their electric wiring, absent any clue as to the dangers; they fail to shovel the snow away from fire plugs so that whole blocks burn to the ground while firefighters search desperately for a place to plug in their hoses; they fail to get their children inoculated, they fail to take precautions against blood borne pathogens, and they necessarily live packed in at higher densities which make them some of our worst vectors for disease.

Would more welfare solve those problems?

No idea. But can we stop choosing what facts we believe to be true on the basis of whether or not we like what we assume to be the policy implications of those facts? We can agree that having a lot of poorly educated, violent, desperate people packed into a concentrated area is likely to have negative effects on everyone else around them without also signaling agreement that such facts imply the necessity of any particular course of action -- or that any action is required. It's still possible to look at that state of affairs and say, "Having considered the alternatives, this system which increases the risk we all get ebola some day is nevertheless superior on other grounds X, Y, and Z, so we'll just have to accept the ebola risk thing."

"poorly educated, violent, desperate people packed into a concentrated area"

Why are we talking about prisons all of a sudden?

I though he was referring to hockey fans. Silly me.

I kid. ;)

Heh, I know right?

(I'm going to assume you're making a witty, and not that you are asking in earnest. Let me know if you actually are unclear on the actual demographic situation in the poor urban areas under discussion.)

I'll go ahead and ask in earnest, why do they deserve better positive externalities?


Which "they"? The poor? They don't.[*] The non-poor? They do. Unfortunately, the only way for the non-poor to enjoy the better positive externality of, say, their place of business not being accidentally burnt to the ground because some mouth-breather who dropped out of eighth grade decided to short his circuit breaker so he can have his hotplate and the TV on at the same time, next door, where he lives because the only place cheap enough to afford was the undesirable industrial area where our virtuous non-poor businessman situated his office-- the only way to enjoy that externality is to somehow do something about eighth grade dropout mouth-breathers shorting circuit breakers.

Sometimes, here in reality, making sure the deserving get their just deserts means giving things (like education, supervision, more fire-proof buildings, whatever) to the undeserving.

For pete's sake, just read Million Dollar Murray for a brilliant essay on just how policies of punishing the undeserving wind up screwing the deserving, and the entire question of "deservingness" just results in poor efficiency.

[* For sake of argument.]

That's why the prison witty has a point. If it's arson, they lock him away. If it's stupidity, you move away. I don't understand what you are trying to say. Yes, there can be bad effects from being around bad people. Holding a contest because you can't tell who is bad and who is good is one thing, saying the bad deserve it is another.

You seem to be implying that, say education, can't be rationed. That is actually what is needed more than anything. The trick is teasing out who are the trouble-makers from kids whose performance is hurt by them. I am always reminded by the fact that I had to put up with a lot of grief from people in high school who are now in prison.

(Argg, is there some reason nesting is limited to so few levels? We're having a nice discussion here, but it's getting really tedious to attempt to reply to people when the comment form is at the topic of the stack of comments, and the newest comments are at the bottom. Anyway...)

@Andrew', "You seem to be implying that, say education, can’t be rationed. " I am? Where do you get that? You go on to say, "The trick is teasing out who are the trouble-makers from kids whose performance is hurt by them. I am always reminded by the fact that I had to put up with a lot of grief from people in high school who are now in prison." I am a big, big, big advocate of that, actually. The question is then, what do you do with the trouble-makers?

This is where we get right down to brass tacks. I work with those trouble-makers, all grown up: I work in the criminal justice system with felons (usually violent ones) being reintegrated into the community. I have a very, very, very clear idea of just how reprehensible these people can be. I get to see what those trouble-making kids so often grow up to be.

So one dimension of the question before us is what we want to do about those kids, while they're still kids. We don't execute 12 year olds for being school-yard bullies, dealing crack, or stealing cars, which leaves the question of what else to do with them.

One of the things we can try to do is intervene, in some way, to get them to change, to knock off being bullies/crack-dealers/carjackers. Quite aside from how reliably the present range of interventions work, all interventions cost money. If tomorrow we invented some intervention to reduce the growing-up-to-be-violent-criminal rate of said young hooligans by 50%, we'd still have to pay for it, with actual dollars, if we wanted to enjoy the reduction in violent and property crime.

And the question of whether those "hooligans" "deserve" to be "treated", to have such an intervention "bought for them" is completely besides the point. I, a hard-working, law-abiding, generally self-sufficient adult, deserve to enjoy a lifestyle as free as possible of the negative externalities of these guys (and occasional gals) growing up to commit crimes against me and mine.

I'm confused. You are saying it is self-evident that non-poor people suffer because they have to deal with poor people being in their lives? Do you really think the character of the poor people would change if they were given more money? If so, why? Have you seens a study? Known many poor people who hit the lottery? I am just asking a question here.

Yes, Cliff, you're confused. You ask, "Do you really think the character of the poor people would change if they were given more money?"


Did you have another question?

Well in that case, it seems you are saying non-poor people DO NOT suffer from lousy schools and dangerous inner cities (okay, maybe the latter if the somehow find themselves in one), since they do not affect the problem you raised, which seems to be the existence of low-IQ people.

@Cliff, you're arguing in the form "If my pet solution (giving money to the poor) won't solve the problem, the problem must not exist." That doesn't merit a response.


First of all, you did respond. Second of all, it sounds like you are saying the problem with the schools and cities is the people in them. Thus, the real problem is not with the schools per se or the city governments, but just actual poor people. Please recall that the comment we are responding to alleges that higher welfare would improve life for non-poor people. It sounds like you agree that it would not. What I would like is some evidence either way.

@Cliff, I said your comment didn't merit a response. I didn't say I wasn't responding. Once you understand that difference, this whole discussion will strike you very differently.

Well, considering that you were completely, 100% incorrect about the form of my argument, maybe you should re-read the discussion and realize how foolish you look. Once you understand that my point was the exact opposite of what you thought it was, this whole conversation will strike you very differently.

I was going to bring this up under the "inequality" discussion. I see it as the main reason that extreme income inequality is undesirable, without resorting to emotional arguments of what is fair or moral: poverty has negative externalities.

Fooster, good comment. I would add: deserving of what, and answer, good schools, equal opportunity, and access to healthcare independent of income.

School choice + income-based college scholarships + existing medicaid? I am down with that.

Cliff, I'm for random assignment os students to alternative schools, but not religious subsidy or real estate developer sponsored school. Need to go beyond Medicaid with contributions by the insured.

I don't understand what you are saying. It seems like you are trying to use "alternative" language for what you are really talking about, but I don't know what that is.

Feel free to do that with your children.

What do you propose to do for those people who do not want their children "randomly assigned"? And for those willing to opt out by homeschooling? Or sending their children to private schools?

Because that's what many people seem to be doing now (and many more probably would like to do if they had the money) to keep their children out of public schools.

I think Chess is a particularly bad example to judge meritocracy by. Chess is meritocracy, for meritocracies sake; and the resultant lack of happiness is not surprising.

Most other meritocracies are means to an end: better decisions, better administration,better allocation etc.(Singapore?) The Chess meritocracy is an end in itself.

It is not sufficient to choose an arbitrary metric of merit; it must be relevant to the core goals of the meritocracy. If you promote firefighters based on, say, their Sodoku solving times you don't have a useful meritocracy.

Determinism is never absolute. The individual in a meritocracy understands that his fate is uncertain. Hard work and merit are often rewarded, but not always - sometimes hard-working smart people get sick, or lose everything in a bank run, or get swindled, and never enjoy their just deserts. Sloth and incompetence are often punished, but not always - sometimes lazy idiots are given everything they want by an indulgent parent/state/corporation, and never suffer their just deserts.

We all understand this on some level. Life isn't always fair. But in our modified meritocracy, it usually is. Most hard-working people do okay in the end, and that's enough.

To roughly paraphrase Franklin, our modified meritocracy is the most unjust, unfair system in the world, with the exception of all the other ones.

Given the stochastic nature of the exact outcome a rigorous merit-only rewards system might be fair if each of us had a large number of "life trials".

The problem is we only live once; so if you are dealt a stochastic lemon, it really stings bad. That's a core reason why many will prefer a modified meritocracy with some degree of a safety-net.

Most men are risk-averse, and given a (early-life) choice between a "massive-rewards-catastrophic-failure-system" versus a mediocre-guaranteed-rewards option seem to prefer the latter.

"Seem to prefer the latter"? What does that mean?

It sounds like Rahul is saying that most young men don't like taking risks.
I don't know if he has evidence.

There wouldn't be such risk in a pure meritocracy.

Even the purest meritocracies must deal with the ugly realities of man's political nature.

You don't think there's any randomness to the returns in a pure meritocracy?

We only live once but we have many many chances to succeed.

Most hard-working people do okay in the end, and that’s enough.

No it isn't enough!

Poverty: ability to do without; inability to do without; inability to do with.

The issue is never the "deserts" of poor adults. The question is always their children.

But children grow up... Sometimes you need to help the adults (no matter how many bad decisions they made) to truly help their children and break the cycle. There is a lot of path dependency in life, so we can't just look at recent decisions out of context.

I think that's what KenF was saying. And it's not a very sometimes thing. A lot (close to 100% in my anecdotal experience working in social and criminal justice systems) of the worst of "undeserving poor" have kids, and we have absolutely no way of punishing those parents without punishing their innocent kids, which would perpetuate the problem.

I have no solution. Just a respect for the awfulness of the problem, which respect seems all to often missing from the blithely clueless responses in the libertarian blogosphere which model the default human being as a free agent without dependents.

Forced sterilization? Increased use of foster homes / state custody?

*elaborate shrug*

I have no solution. Or rather, a list of solutions which all seem to suck.

Well here's the approach I have tried...help the adult fill out job applications, edit their CV, help the kids with studying, research school options, and just be a friend to the family. Sure it's one lame anecdote and I won't pretend that it's been wildly successful. And yet, sitting at home and not doing anything would probably have done less good. There are lots of ways to volunteer and help others help themselves.

On the more macro level, my frustration has been the double-jeopardy for ex-felons. The dad did his time and now (even before the recession) finds it near impossible to get a permanent job. Lots of temp jobs, but who wants to hire an ex-felon? How about all those libertarian/conservative business owners out there not making that a first-round criteria for screening out candidates?

At a certain point, they stop getting to victimize their kids. So, it's not an absolute, at least in practice.

Oh, Andrew'. They never stop getting to victimize their kids. They just sometimes are prevented from further victimizing them physically. :/

Outstanding comment.

Yes, that was my point, said better than I could have.

It seems we have a new gadfly who can explain what libertarians think.

No, that's my niche and I do a damn good job at it

@Andrew' *zzzzzzzzzz* Taxation is theft! *zzzzzzzzzzz* All legitimate law derives from property rights! *zzzzzzzzzz*

Does corporal punishment of the adults hurt the children?
(Muhummed Ali's claims notwithstanding.)

An exceptionally astute poke at Caplan's reasoning in general. His views to ward common sense (as well as his ability to discern it) are ever-shifting.

Is that paragraph a dig at Bryan's immigration reasoning specifically, or are there other areas Tyler had in mind?

Because it screams "immigration."

Meritocracy is not the problem, for that is how money is capable of utilizing knowledge. The problem however is that knowledge only becomes a side benefit of money, in the same manner that human capital also does. The middle class can be redefined and made sustainable by allowing both definitions to exist: primary money-based economic structures as in the present, alongside economic structures in which knowledge and our time become primary while money is secondary.

Considerations of poverty are, of course, relative and subjective. Poverty in the US is somewhat different than poverty in a place like Mogadishu. For most people, reduction in poverty involves redistribution of wealth, either by direct payment or through the guise of educational opportunities or enhanced opportunities for employment, which are redistributionist as well. The real point is what does the recipient of the largesse owe to his benefactors, if anything? In a "fair" deal, if someone gives up part of their wealth to lift someone else out of poverty, can they expect a tangible benefit? Or must they be satisfied with an ephemeral "better society"? I'd be happy to pay some mendicant to mow my lawn or wash my dishes.
I'm less thrilled to have a big portion of my paycheck confiscated to subsidize sloth, lethargy and indolence.

Would taxpayers perhaps be happier if every ( able-bodied ) person collecting unemployment was made to run a fairly grueling treadmill session each time he collected his check? I wonder.

I think everyone on unemployment/welfare should instead receive a free food cart from the government. Two birds with one stone! Our street food culture sucks. In the richest country in the world, I should never half to walk more than a mile for a taco. In fact, by the time I finish eating a taco, I should have arrived at the next taco stand.

Regulation in part

Dude, your government intervention is artificially depressing the value of tacos! How is an honest, hardworking taco-cart owner to make a living when government is subsidizing the competition!?

Government artificially restricts the supply of food vendors, often explicitly with license quotas.

I’d be happy to pay some mendicant to mow my lawn or wash my dishes.

Oh, please do -- but I think you're wrong. You wouldn't be happy at all. As to washing your dishes, that means letting this mendicant into your house. Think carefully: are you going to let this stranger whom no other employer found employable into your house unattended? Or were you planning on standing over them, making sure they don't pocket your silver, case your joint, palm your iPod? In which case, what's the saving to you? Were you planning on running a background check? Asking for a bond? Only hire mendicants you know well personally and have come to trust out of the great number of mendicants you socialize with? What?

No, what you decide, after your moment of high-mindedness, is that you aren't going to let this person in to your house to wash your dishes, not unless they work for some sort of dish-washing company that can vouch for them.

Okay, how about mowing your law? That should be fine right? So, a couple I'm friends with last winter had their doorbell rung by an itinerant snow-shoveler last winter. "Aha!" they thought, "here's an opportunity to help some unfortunate who is struggling in the recession, but doing everything he can to earn an honest living!" They hired him to shovel their driveway. And things were peachy-keen, for a little bit. Then came the time when he didn't show up. So after a day, the next door neighbor who had a snow-blower, cleaned them out. The day after that, their mendicant snow-shoveler showed up at their door, enraged, and demanding to be paid anyways. He was uninterested in their pointing out they needed to get their cars out, and so had had to go to the neighbor, and unsympathetic to their position that they shouldn't have to pay for services not rendered. Thus began his campaign of harassment.

The problem with your fantasy of trickle-down assistance is that it quickly butts head with the fact that some of these people are, as you say, slothful, lethargic, and indolent, and nobody else wants to employ them either, and it's hard to tell which ones they are. We have a system, half-assed though it may be, for trying to protect employers/benefactors from those people, and we call it "regular employment". Offering domestic work to people who have flunked out of regular employment means fishing in a pond overstocked with fish other people have already thrown back.

Which is not to say that these people can't be contributing employees. Just that it typically takes some particular organizational human resources advantage to extract that contribution from otherwise problematic employees. Microsoft famously will hire brilliant coders who are near-sociopathic in their interpersonal style, because Microsoft has an institutional culture which knows (or at least has reason to think it knows) how to get good contributions from those toxic people without the organization getting poisoned. Organized crime is definitionally organizations which manage to get efficacious coordinated labor out of a class of people over represented by impulse control problems and poverty of natural inclination to cooperate.

But unless you have such an edge in getting valuable contribution out of problem employees, no, you won't be "happy" to be shopping for labor in the reject bin.

Poor people are automatically virtuous, that's why the state gives them rich people's money.

Fantastic, nuanced, thoughtful, well-written comment.

The good thing about living in a time of high unemployment is that you can actually find people who
a) Need a job
b) You would let into your house.

But you still won't find them snorting petrol in the local park.

The reality of the United States is that anyone can succeed with enough intelligence and drive. However, the United States is not equipped to allow the poor succeed and rise above their poverty in great numbers. I read this point somewhere, I can't remember of the top of my head where, but let's say a library in the inner city has 5 computers for children with drive to use and learn. That's great if there are 5 or 10 or perhaps even 20 kids who want to learn and use these computers. But what if 100 or 1,000 kids want to learn and better themselves? There are simply not enough resources. So the point is you need to allocate the resources before you will see success of more than a couple of children.

So the question shouldn't be 'can one person succeed?' rather 'given the resources allocated, how many people can succeed in this situation?'

I'd wait to see how heavily the 5 computers are being used before I'd install 100.

Desert has two faces: how much do the poor deserve their fate, but also how much do the well-off deserve their success? The availability of second, third, and fourth chances to the children of the middle and upper-middle class has much, I think, results in many, many more of them eventually ending up as productive adults.

It also raises the question of what "fate" we're talking. Middle+ class kids with profound dyslexia have a good chance of having adequate educational opportunities to learn to read adequately to get a better than entry-level job some day in adulthood; poor kids with profound dyslexia are statistically vastly less likely to get that same level of support and vastly more likely to wind up functionally illiterate in adulthood, unable to get any job which requires filling out a written application. Should the "fate" of such a person being freezing to death under a bridge? They "could" work, after all, being healthy and able-bodied. We look at learning to read as a voluntary behavior, never mind that it's extraordinarily hard to learn in adulthood even without the added burden of a neurological handicap, and never mind that they still might not be able to access the level of educational resources necessary, being still poor. It's very easy to look at such a person as willfully making "poor" choices when he doesn't pursue improved literacy to the point of attainment -- especially so when we meet him and his demeanor is surly, hostile, defiant, and resentful, and he makes it clear he has no use for the middle and higher classes which have so constituted his world such that he will always have the deck stacked against him for two accidents of birth. Should being born to an impoverished family make the fate of dyslexia a death sentence?

And substitute in any a number of comparatively modest cognitive or mood impairments which are entirely redressable so that they don't later impact adult functioning if you have the family or community resources in childhood to do so.

Discussions about what the unmeritorious "deserve" typically leave unstated exactly what deserts we're discussing. One would think that we were debating whether the slovenly and lazy should have to go without premium cable, and not whether they, and also people not necessarily either slovenly nor lazy but disadvantaged, should have enough to eat that they don't starve to death, enough heat they don't freeze to death, and enough medical care not to die young from treatable conditions. To say nothing of their children.

"One would think that we were debating whether the slovenly and lazy should have to go without premium cable, and not whether they, and also people not necessarily either slovenly nor lazy but disadvantaged, should have enough to eat that they don’t starve to death, enough heat they don’t freeze to death, and enough medical care not to die young from treatable conditions."

For all practical purposes, that is exactly what we are debating. The number of people starving to death in the U.S. is unbelievably small. Also, hospitals cannot turn you away...

Yeah but if the right-leaning people had their way more people would be starving and hospitals would turn people away

If right-leaning people had their way, starving people could eat those turned away from hospitals. Or is it that hospitals would starve people before turning them away?

Then again, my personal preference is just to mulch them so that my diamond trees grow larger fruit, so what do I know?

What @CBBB said. It is precisely the measures which exist to keep people alive which are under debate.

Consider healthcare. You say hospitals cannot turn you away: actually, you're just wrong about that. Hospitals can and do refuse life-saving medical care due to lack of ability to pay all the time. And quite aside from deliberate attempts on their part to manage costs, what do you think happens in a hospital that cannot turn anyone away, ever? Scalpels don't grow on trees. There are only so many surgical theaters in the building, and even if you make them do 36hr shifts there are only so many surgeon-hours in a week. There comes a point when there just aren't any more resources to give free care to the indigent anymore.

This is why Massachusetts imposed the responsibility for every individual to medically insure themself at "gun point", and why the nation is apparently following suit: to keep people from dying due to hospitals running out of money. I'm not saying it was the right solution. I'm not saying it was the wrong solution. I'm just saying this is the problem they were trying to solve.

You're not making any sense. Food stamps, philanthropy, and elimination of medicaid and the requirement that hospitals treat all comers are under debate? That is simply not true.

In any case, the primary factor that reduces hunger and starvation is the overall level of economic welfare. Policies that improve economic growth are the most powerful anti-poverty programs.

All hospitals are required to provide emergency treatment, and public hospitals are required to provide non-emergency medical treatment as well. The cost of health care for indigents is a very small percentage of overall healthcare costs. We are not anywhere near the level where it would not be possible to treat all indigent people. It is unlikely the U.S. could ever reach that level, barring a massive drop in GDP. Again, growth policies are the biggest thing we can do to eliminate poverty, lack of health care, etc.

The poor are often held back by the rest of society by things like minimum wages, pension payments (they never live to see the benefit of), public education etc.

The lack of meritocracy leads to happiness bubbles which pop.

Intriguing assertion. I'm not immediately seeing it. Could you elaborate?

To some people lack of money is motivation to work harder to others not so much. To some plenty of money causes destruction. It is hard to say what would happen to people absent the welfare system.


this is a standard sideshow that presupposes that it is the "poor" who are doing exceptionally badly in society, to draw attention away from the reality that the only exceptional outcomes are those of the very very top. the relevant "debate" would be: are the bottom 99.9% of this country *all* deserving of their past 40 years of failure? and what changed that made them deserve that failure compared to the previous 40 years, and compared to various other countries in the developed world?

"are the bottom 99.9% of this country *all* deserving of their past 40 years of failure"
They are not. You are correct. We should end the welfare state that is holding down the poor.

"and what changed that made them deserve that failure compared to the previous 40 years, and compared to various other countries in the developed world"

Um, our poor are actually quite often /better/ off than many other countries.

"past 40 years of failure" = pretty ridiculous

" . . . We still may wish to aid the undeserving." Especially when they vote for you.

Kipling: “The brave new world begins, when all men are paid for existing and no man must pay for his sins.”

That Kipling quote is something of a straw man. While there are those who argue that all "men [...] be paid for existing", nobody in particular is arguing that "no man must pay for his sins" -- the argument is what the bill should be, and whether other men, who have not sinned, but whose fates are tied to that of the sinner, should also pay for his sins.

I guess that explains why conservatives are so eager to reduce taxes on the wealthy. Not a ton of votes, perhaps, but tons of campaign cash that translates into votes, or sometimes just stays as cash in the recipient's pocket.

And is there any one less deserving than the heirs of a multi-gazillionaire?

Most every outcome in the world is luck and chance. People put too much emphasis on hard-work or whatever but the world we live in is first and foremost hierarchical and lazy idiots with enough charisma can often move up in a hierarchy. It's more about playing "the game" then contributing.

It's funny, in law school all the middling and poor students would talk about how every exam was "a crapshoot." As if they had no influence over the result of the exam. I guess I was the luckiest mf'er then.

Life is not law school. You can do well on exams and it still doesn't necessarily mean anything. Sure if you study more for an exam you can do better but that doesn't mean anything when you factor in all the randomness and luck of the real world. Life's a weighted probability function and you can move the weights around a bit but one unfortunate outcome can destroy a person independent of what happened before.

Well, if you do well on your exams you will place well in your class, and if you place well in your class you will be offered a good job. Sure, you could still get struck by lightning and die, but that is pretty unlikely.

But that's Law School - which is the end of a longer chain of events to get there

I guess that's why only the poor play the lotery

CBBB, the fact that luck has an some role to play is not equivalent to the fact that hard-work or whatever has an insignificant role to play.

Now, if you're talking about the .01% and not the people that you live and work with every day, then you might well be correct about the importance of luck. However, for most of us, the 0.01% is utterly irrelevant to how we live our lives (and should be unless we want to live a life of bitterness). For the rest of us, hard-work is not a guarantee, but it's by far the most important component of success.

And, of course, belief that success in life is determined entirely by luck is one of the most massively happiness-destructive philosophies that one can have. If you're trying to promulgate that belief, you should realize that you are actively engaged in welfare-destructive behavior.

The 0.01% is not irrelevant to me.

"If you’re trying to promulgate that belief, you should realize that you are actively engaged in welfare-destructive behavior."

Well you know the old saying, misery loves company

I'm personally much more concerned about the undeserving rich, of which there are many, then the undeserving poor

There we agree. Get rid of the regulations and taxes (and tax breaks) and the playing field would be more level.

Leaving aside the left-hand 2-sigma tail of the intelligence/talent curve, doesn't this ultimately come down to whether the individual has managed to acquire a set of successful habits? And isn't the acquisition of those habits vastly more difficult after the age of, say, 14? So if we've got a kid that has some combination of lousy parents and lousy schooling, can we really hold him accountable in later life for neither possessing nor being able to acquire the proper skills to be successful?

Sure, but isn't "accountability" besides the point? Regardless of whether or not he did something wrong himself, or was wronged by his environment, we as a society are now stuck with this guy it in who, as you say, "neither possesses nor is able to acquire the proper skills to be successful", and the question is not whom to punish, but what to do about it. Especially if he has kids he is now in a poor position to adequate parent.

Unless you have some supernatural explanation for that, you cannot choose what to choose and what you want, so the existence of choice and will are not sufficient. To justify the fairness of meritocracy one would first have to prove that our action can actually influence the physical nature of the Universe, that when I choose to sleep at home it was physically possible to have gone to look for work given the way the matter and energy were distributed at the Universe at that time, so we could be somehow intrinsically responsible for the results of our actions.

This may sound unhelpful for practical reasons, but I think it is important to have in mind on a very general sense before defending the moral value of meritocracy.

As an incentive meritocracy is no doubt efficient, and it feels fair at the level we conceive reality. But it can't be a moral value, because it is impossible, and it is wrong to condemn people to for their conditions of birth, raising, etc. As our society beats scarcity, we should just help everyone to have a nice time on their glimpse at existence, because we are not guilty or responsible for anything in an intrinsic sense, even if feeling like it can be useful.

I think most people do believe that, even if they can't "prove it".

I don't see why you invoke determinism.

A person who lives in the ghetto might have a choice set of {sell drugs, be a prostitute}.

A person who lives out of the ghetto might have a choice set of {sell drugs, be a prostitute, get an office job}.

People out of the ghetto will choose the office the job. Just because a person who lives in the ghetto chooses to sell drugs or be a prostitute does not mean that determinism holds in any form, only that the options for people in the ghetto are restricted compared to people out of the ghetto.

As a George Mason University student, I wish that they would rethink this. Poverty, inequality, productivity, etc. are all great topics to debate... but I would strenuously avoid the word "deserve" in this context. In a time of high unemployment, that is in no small part due to structural causes, there are plenty of people that have been unemployed for some time and it could be entirely ambiguous whether they are at fault or to blame for their situation. Ultimately the word "deserve" seems to be an invitation to generalised hyperbole, and I certainly don't appreciate that sort of debate.

Makes you question what kind of idiot would stand up and say "you all deserve to be poor!" Even if there were sound logic behind the statement, they should probably have phrased the topic differently.

"...the Occident's attitude toward work, so far from being natural and normal, is strange and unprecedented. It was the relatively recent emergence of this attitude which, as much as anything else, gave modern Western civilization its unique character and marked it off from all its predecessors.
In practically all civilizations we know of, and in the Occident too for many centuries, work was viewed as a curse, a mark of bondage, or, at best, a necessary evil. That free men should be willing to work day after day, even after their vital needs are satisfied, and that work should be seen as a mark of uprightness and manly worth, is not only unparalleled in history but remains more or less incomprehensible to many people outside the Occident."

This passage is from Eric Hoffer's tour de force, "The Ordeal of Change". Although the work is filled with nuggets of insight, this particular observation is important because it applies so directly to the aims of the welfare state. The concept of "working" and having a "job" is not a universal one, even in the Occident. There are many westerners that are quite satisfied to live at lower level of consumption if they can do so with a minimum of effort. Who is to say that they are wrong? And, at the same time, who is to say that the rest of society should subsidize their values? "Progressives" maintain that the "poor", whoever they might be, are victims in some Darwinian contest for economic supremacy, losers, through no fault of their own, in the game of life. The reality is that they're not playing the game and that the game's rules shouldn't apply to them.

'There are many westerners that are quite satisfied to live at lower level of consumption if they can do so with a minimum of effort. Who is to say that they are wrong? And, at the same time, who is to say that the rest of society should subsidize their values?'

I'm one of those people - lower level of consumption, 30 hours a week spent in my job. However, the very idea that the rest of society is subsidizing my values is beyond absurd.

That is because you make the standard leap - people who are not participating as fully as conceivable in a consumer driven society are somehow the recipients of society's largesse.

It isn't so - and I would be thrilled if my values were the one that were considered mainstream, since really, filling landfills at the rate of 4.4 pounds of trash a day on average per American is something that I would prefer not be subsidized through society's current values.

( http://www.wisegeek.com/how-much-garbage-does-a-person-create-in-one-year.htm - 'According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the average American produces about 4.4 pounds (2 kg) of garbage a day, or a total of 29 pounds (13 kg) per week and 1,600 pounds (726 kg) a year. This only takes into consideration the average household member and does not count industrial waste or commercial trash.')

If 4.4 lbs is the average garbage production per US resident, it follows that some are producing less and some more.(I must have been at work the day they weighed mine.) Ergo the more abject poverty the better for the Blue Planet (and so much the worse for firms like Waste Management). Why do you hate garbage truck drivers?

Yeah, some people wish to consume leisure time, some wish to consume physical luxuries.

Why it should be that one of these groups is considered morally or economically superior to the other is entirely peculiar, simply because one of these can be measured as "economic output" and because they do not make payments to other people for it.

If I choose to work more, earn and then spend the output on fine wines, why should I be treated as superior to a person who went and had a nap or went and brewed his own homebrew? You could say "Well, when working, you are providing a desirable service to someone else, and by paying money to the vintner you are helping him become employed." but he is being employed providing a service to me which is entirely unnecessary if I had different, arbitary, preferences. One outcome can't be seen as better just because it involves a greater number of trades or production of physical stuff?

The reason the people who choose more leisure are viewed as morally and economically inferior is because most of them expect other people to pay for their lifestyle choice.


"My strategy, as usual, is to use an uncontroversial moral premise to show that the status quo is absurd. The premise: You are poor by your own fault if there are reasonable steps you could take - or could have taken - to avoid poverty."

Is this really uncontroversial? Leaving aside questions of what "fault" implies, we're talking about decision-making here. Decisions are made in the face of uncertainty, and more importantly in the context of the available information. If the information you have is lousy then you're likely to make a poor decision. And many of the decisions involved are made when people are quite young: drop out of school, be careless about sex, etc. At that age peer pressure and social conditions matter a lot. A sixteen-year old is not, Caplan's imaginings aside, a hyper-rational economic decision-maker.

I suspect that if most commenters here had come home with lousy grades in high school, or talked about dropping out, we would have gotten an earful or worse. But that's not true of everyone.

And what about employment decisions? Is the worker responsible when the management of his company proves inept, and the company goes broke, and the pension plan disappears? Well, he could have taken a job elsewhere, but does the actual decision disqualify him from sympathy?

In short, I don't think this premise is uncontroversial at all. I think it's poorly defined to start with, its implications are unclear, and it fails to take into account the realities of human behav ior and decision-making.

I don't understand claims that meritocracy - more power and pleasure for the talented - is a good in and of itself. Or even desirable in and of itself.

What is desirable in and of itself, is my good, and the good of the masses and the flourishing of the arts and sciences (adjust preference and levels in each to taste).

Meritocracy is merely a means towards that ends, and if it doesn't serve that ends, it has no worth (despite the claims of people who are good at things and would badly like to have more money and power).

There's no particular good in rewarding talent and hard work in itself.

Meritocracy is often a good means to desirable ends, but it isn't a principle that has any worth in and of itself.

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