Libertarianism, Current Events

Property, Liberty, and the Deserving Poor

Despite the exciting title, I suppose this is really just an overblown links post. First, a couple of (relative) quickies:

First, Terrance Tomkow has an interesting post on “The Origins of Property.” It draws on some of his earlier posts on “The Retributive Theory of Property” and, more generally, his “Retributive Ethics.”

Second, Gene Callahan has a new paper in Politics, Philosophy, and Economics on “Liberty and Libertarianism” (gated, alas. I’ll update if I can find an ungated link). Here’s the abstract:

This article aims to persuade its reader that libertarianism, at least in several of its varieties, is a species of the genus that Michael Oakeshott referred to as ‘rationalism in politics’. I hope to demonstrate, employing the work of Oakeshott as well as Aristotle and Onora O’Neill, how many libertarian theorists, who generally have a sincere and admirable commitment to personal liberty, have been led astray by the rationalist promise that we might be able to approach deductive certainty concerning the ‘correctness’ of some political programme. The article will argue that a concept such as Pettit’s freedom as non-domination is more robust and inclusive of all that we value about freedom than is the libertarian concept of freedom as non-interference.

Finally, last week Bryan Caplan put up his opening statement of his debate  with Karl Smith on the topic of “How Deserving Are the Poor?”.  Bryan and I went back and forth a bit on this issue a while back, first me here, then him, and him again, then me, then finally him. I think Bryan’s to be commended for raising this issues, which are certainly ones that Jonathan Haidt would see as “taboo” in polite academic circles. And I think that in his most recent contribution to the debate, Bryan makes an important point about the relative deservingness of Third-World workers compared to US workers. If anyone deserves our help, certainly the former group does. At the very least, we owe it to them to stop hurting them.

But I still have my doubts about Bryan’s claim that many/most of our domestic poor are undeserving. Even if it’s true that poor people have certain features that are causally connected with poverty – such as low conscientiousness – it still doesn’t follow that those features are a sufficient explanation of their poverty, or the extent of their poverty. Low conscientiousness might be an important part of the story, but that doesn’t prevent bad luck and/or injustice from being important parts too – perhaps the dominant parts.

Moreover, Bryan still seems unimpressed by the basic Rawlsian worry – that a person’s character (including low conscientiousness) “depends in large part upon fortunate family and social circumstances for which he can claim no credit.” Bryan’s on record as being in believer in free will. But you don’t have to be a hard determinist to take Rawls’ point seriously. Our character is heavily shaped by our early environment and our genes, and both of those are a matter of luck as far as we’re concerned. So even if bad character is a major explanatory factor for poverty, that doesn’t mean that bad luck isn’t.

Published on:
Author: Matt Zwolinski
  • At least from my angle, Caplan is establishing a consistent habit of going to great lengths to intellectualize “vulgar libertarian” sentiment (mostly elitist-sounding stuff that denigrates and blames the masses). I think he might get off a little on being “politically incorrect” in the process too.

    One thing that’s baffled me for a while is how one could have any pretense of forming a desirable “libertarian society” if the masses are really that naturally stupid and immoral. Would a libertarian society be founded and restricted by “the natural elite” or something, who maintain the libertarian social order via their amazing natural superiority?

    • Anonymous

      Naturally stupid and immoral, no. Naturally self-interested with the desire to satisfy our needs with the least amount of our own effort, yes.

      • So would you be making an assertion of absolute psychological egoism? And would it justify pretty specific traits used as sweeping generalizations of groups of people? Even granting some general sense in which people may be “self-interested”, what about the specifics of their motivations and reasoning? The norms, values, ideas, factors, that may play in to it? 

        Does this claim constitute an attempt to make economics function as and effectively replace fields such as sociology and psychology? Can such a general model of economic self-interest sufficiently account for the content and variety of people’s ethics, aesthetics, habits, character traits, backgrounds, life circumstances, and all manner of abstract beliefs, and how this play into their decision-making? Is an individual’s “effort” not going to be relative to a bunch of things?

        I think the field of economics is rather limited in the scope of what it can reasonably get away with claiming.

        • Anonymous

          Alex, I meant it as a general statement, not an absolute statement. Of course different people act on those tendencies in different ways. Some in good ways and some in not so good ways.

          • By whittle things down to such more general propositions, I fail to see how you’re actually defending Caplain and his various claims about the psychology and character of groups. His notions certainly don’t directly follow from your general propositions.

      • Anonymous

         You seem to think that people always act rationally and in their self-interest. Let me introduce you to the real world. In fact people often act irrationally and not in their self-interest, as any psychologist knows. People are influenced by hidden (and not so hidden) prejudices and distortions of thinking they may not be aware of . You need to read a few books on cognitive psychology. You might start with

        The Science of Fear: How the Culture of Fear Manipulates Your Brain by Dan Gardiner, just one of the many books out on how cognitive distortions influence our thinking.

        • Anonymous

          Sharon, of course I don’t think that people *always* act rationally and in their self-interest. That would be silly. But would you deny that, as a general rule, most people, most of the time, act rationally and in their self-interest?

          • Anonymous

             Ah, this depends on what you mean by “rationally.”   If you mean making decisions based on good evidence, then I would say the answer is frequently no. True critical thinking is rare, as studies show, But isn’t your question a bit broad?  People are often rational about some kinds of decisions and often irrational about others. It simply depends on what you are talking about.  I think human behavior is far too complex to make sweeping generalizations. As for acting in one’s self-interest, since I am an empiricist when it comes to what humans actually *do,* I don’t  think there is a lot of social science data on that particular question. Again I think it depends on what behaviors we  are talking about. And I don’t think economics can answer that question. Not all behaviors are economic ones, and a bit more humility and a bit more cross-disciplinary study seems to be in order for the economists who talk about such issues.

          • Anonymous

             After reading the article and a few of the comments. I strongly suggest that all concerned read Daniel Kahneman’s current book “Thinking Fast and Slow.” DK won the Nobel Prize in econ, even though he is a psychologist, for his work on decision theory. This work had a great influence on behavioral economics. Here is a quote from the review in the NY Times:  “Most of us are healthy most of the time, and most of our judgments and
            actions are appropriate most of the time,” Kahneman writes in his
            introduction. Yet, just a few pages later, he observes that the work he
            did with Tversky “challenged” the idea, orthodox among social scientists
            in the 1970s, that “people are generally rational.” The two
            psychologists discovered “systematic errors in the thinking of normal
            people”: errors arising not from the corrupting effects of emotion, but
            built into our evolved cognitive machinery.”

            Kahneman talks about 2 systems of cognitive decision-making: one that is rational and one that is automatic and intuitive. In  many instances, the automatic system works just fine but not if difficult decisions have to be made. Unfortunately many people use the intuitive system even when they shouldn’t. That’s when they are irrational.

            The idea that one can adequately describe human behavior, whether economic or otherwise, without an awareness of psychology, especially in this case, cognitive and neuropsychology, is IMO a foolish conceit.

            But what do my political views have to do with this discussion?  I am commenting as a psychologist, not as a political activist.

          • Anonymous

             Thank you for the links to those thoughtful reviews.  I certainly disagree with Kahneman’s conclusions about government for the same reason you state: “The thing is…it’s a “Fatal Conceit” for a small group of people to
            assume that they have enough information to make resource allocation
            decisions for the entire country.” As for Kahneman, alas, we are all blind to some of our own conceits. Since I am an anarchist, your solution doesn’t seem to solve the problem either.

  • Anonymous

    Speaking as a psychologist, I
    have to agree with Matt Zwolinksi’s conclusion: “Our character is
    heavily shaped by our early environment and our genes, and both of those
    are a matter of luck as far as we’re concerned. So even if bad
    character is a major explanatory factor for poverty, that doesn’t mean
    that bad luck isn’t.”

    The idea that the poor deserve their fate
    can only be made by someone who has never really looked at situation of
    the poor up close and personal and has no understanding of the actual
    psychological or sociological conditions that the poor face. It is an argument from
    privilege unrelated to real world conditions.  
    People act within the boundaries of what they know and are taught. Many go to poor schools that don’t teach them the skills to get out of their situation. Others are affected by a sense of learned helplessness. Still others want to get out but don’t know how or have trouble marketing their limited skills.  You have to know there are options and what they are before you can exercise choice. Even then, choices often require (unobtainable) money.

    Have the people who take these positions ever been poor? I wonder. I grew up poor so I think I have a more informed perspective.  Sure, I got out of it because I have a high IQ. My mother was very smart too but she never finished high school and and even though she had skills, they were not ones that paid much. Things eventually got better for us, but partly through sheer luck. We had a chance to move to California where wages were higher. If not for the piece of luck, she would have been stuck in poverty in the Midwest. I only reveal this much of my background to provide an concrete example that shows how shallow the thinking is that claims the poor deserve their fate.  I find such thinking flawed, insulting and reprehensible.

    • You don’t invite debate when you chacacterize other’s thinking as “insulting and reprehensible.” I find your thinking flawed — but not reprehensible. Why can’t you extend the same courtesy to others? But more to the point:
      I grew up in West Philadelphia and attended inner-city schools; I also currently work in close relation to many individuals  from poor neighborhoods. This close interaction with the poor and lower classes is one reason why I think Bryan Caplan is correct when he asserts that the poor are largely responsible for their fate. They do make bad choices over and over again. For example, many of the underprivileged folks where I work fail to show up to work on time or show up at all. Naturally, they get canned. And they know it’s coming: they are warned verbally and in writing. Learned helplessness, and other vague sociological and psychological causes, are difficult, if not impossible to falsify, much like healthnuts who blame every physical ailment on pesticides, etc. Sure, luck plays a part but only a small part for most people in the First World.  

  • Just a note to the discussion: the nature vs. nurture sort of debate is kind of dated and not consistent with the latest (“latest” meaning last several decades) research on the relationship between genes and environment. 
    Though I am by no means an expert on these matters I do read some of the sociobiology/ biodemography literature when I want to feel smart (because I am reading cutting edge and dense work that I can talk about on blogs) and when I want to feel stupid (because after multiple readings I only understand 1/2 of it). 
     In short, a consensus is emerging that genes behave differently based upon different environmental stimuli. The nature vs. nurture dichotomy may ultimately not be a useful analytic tool even as a sort of abstracted ideal typical typology. Its the interaction of nature and nurture (operationalized as genes and environment) that should be the key consideration. Seriously, social scientists need to have at least some passing familiarity with this literature….we’ve basically been having the wrong debate for a long time…..
    Caplan’s discussion of Edin and Kafelas’s work is dishonest and I don’t see why it qualifies as “left-wing ethnography”; there is nothing especially left wing about the book and I am sure that both authors would caution broad generalization from their work (as all good ethnographers are wont to do). Maybe the process of studying poor women is inherently left wing or something….both Edin and Kafelas are probably left-wing politically but the book is not very political…
    What Edin and Kafelas note is that persons wallowing in intractable poverty don’t profess values that are highly different from middle class society. That is, they still want to get married, find a good job, etc. but tend to experience life events (like childbearing before marriage or even a stable relationship) in a very different order than middle class society. There is a lot more too the book but I highly recommend it for anyone interested in an ethnographic account of such issues. 
    There really is a ton of work on this subject and the problems of intractable poverty. There is an enormous ethnographic record as well as a massive amount of statistical papers. Seriously, you could spend a career on this……
    So Caplan should probably familiarize himself with this material more. He could probably find some research on the relationship between income and “conscientiousness” since its apparently a construct from some personality study. In about 20 seconds I found this article: The speed at which I was able to locate relevant work suggests that there is probably a lot of research into personality traits and income. Seriously, it wouldn’t have been very hard for Caplan to do the same as he is a smart dude.

    But I think there are some bigger questions. 
    For one, who gets to decide who are the “deserving” poor worthy of assistance and the “undeserving” poor who are unworthy of assistance? Who gets to have that power? Should we give the poor a personality test and allocate assistance based upon those scores? 

  • Anonymous

    What should be done about the massive undeserving upper-middle class, like Bryan Caplan?  Would even half the jobs in higher education exist without the subsidy and bubble creation spawned by the DOE and banks?  It is even a worse moral failing on Caplan’s part– since he is seemingly a more ‘conscientous’ being than the poor.

    • Anonymous

      How is it a moral failing on Caplan’s part, and what would you suggest he do to correct his moral failing?