Social Justice

Caplan v. Gowder on Blaming the Poor

Poor people frequently make what appear to be stupid, self-destructive choices. For instance, there’s a distant cousin, Aaron, on my wife’s side. Aaron lacks a high school diploma and is always nearly broke. However, Aaron spends what little money he has on cigarettes and small tattoos rather than on things that would actually improve his life. Or, for instance, consider people who get pregnant because they refuse to use cheap and easily available birth control. Almost everyone either knows, or ought to know*, that if you are young, have frequent heterosexual vaginal sex, and don’t use a condom (or some other form of birth control), you will probably get pregnant.

Some questions:
1. Might apparently irrational behavior actually be rational, in light of people’s constrained choice sets?
2. Even if some apparently irrational behavior is rational, is all or even most of it?
3. Should we blame at least some of the poor and hold them responsible for their actions? (Take Aaron again. I haven’t given you all the details of his life. He grew up in rotten circumstances. I’m not surprised that Aaron acts in what appears to be such a short-sighted and unconscientious way. However, at least in his case, as far as I can tell, it would be easy to improve his circumstances dramatically.)

Bryan Caplan has been writing at length about these issues. See here and here to start.

Paul Gowder responds here.

I’m not going to enter directly into this debate. Instead, I’ll just comment on what it means to judge other people.

Take me, for instance. I’m educated. I have a good job. I’m in the top few percent of income-earners. I’m married. Etc. Now, suppose tomorrow I started doing cocaine and sleeping with undergraduates. Suppose, as a result, I ended up losing my job, my family, my friends, and so on. You’d probably be inclined–unless you had evidence otherwise–to hold me responsible for my actions, to blame me, and so.

Yet most of us resist wanting to blame the poor when they make similarly self-destructive choices.

Now, it may be that in the situation above, I really would be blameworthy, while perhaps Gowder is right about the poor.

However, it’s worth noting that to judge someone as morally responsible tends to show respect. You treat that person as an agent with sufficient control over his or her life. To treat someone as not responsible tends to show a lack of respect. You treat that person as not being an agent. “It’s not your fault; you couldn’t help it” can sometimes imply “You are more like a child than an adult. You aren’t among my peers.” “You ruined your life, you idiot!” implies “You are an agent. You are my peer. I expect more from you.”

Does Caplan get his facts or his his analysis of those facts wrong? Or is the issue that Caplan–unlike most academics–respects the poor enough to point fingers at them?

On a related note, David Schmidtz and I argue that free will is not an all-or-nothing thing. And, to some degree, to have free will is a personal achievement.

*By “ought to know”, I mean would be culpable for failing to know.

  • erp617

    Taxpayers provide public services available to all. We maintain an infrastructure. There are no tolls on well-lit city streets, police and fire protection are provided as well as mail delivery, public schools, etc. There is no reason for anyone to remain ignorant and slothful, so if they do, I see no reason for the rest of us to step in and provide remedial care for their foolish choices.

    Welfare for those who through no fault of their own are in need, is called charity and I’m in favor of it.

    Welfare for the able-bodied who choose to drink and/or drug themselves or engage in other self-destructive behavior only contributes to their problem.

    Stop paying people who make wrong choices and they’ll stop making them and it’s unconscionable to pay people who won’t even take of themselves a nice income for any children they may bring into the world.

    When “free” money is so carelessly available, there’s precious little difference between the social workers and the social takers. They work together to milk the system.


        Hi Rod,
        Just curious about something. According to a very recent study published by Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation (, the federal and state governments have spent $927 billion on the poor in fiscal year 2011 in the form of cash, medical care, food stamps, housing, etc. If you disagree with this tally, feel free to provide an alternative calculation. Now, I completely agree with you that many things done by our state hurt the poor. Nevertheless, if the state goes away, so does the $927 billion in aid. So, it seems to me that whether the net effect of ordered anarchy on the poor would be positive or negative is ultimately an empirical question. Agreed?

        • It’s partly an empirical question and partly not — because a) benefit and harm are partly economic and partly not, and b) economics itself is partly empirical and partly not. (Specifically, economic theory is not empirical, but its application is empirical.)

          Please bear in mind also that the state spending $927 billion “on the poor,” and the poor actually getting $927 billion, are two very different things. Government welfare efforts tend to eat up 3/4 of money received in overhead, compared with 1/4 in the case of private welfare efforts (this is both empirically confirmed, and theoretically what we would more or less expect). Plus, in addition to getting a higher proportion of its
          revenue to the poor, private welfare efforts in a freed market would have absolutely higher amounts of revenue, and absolutely lower numbers of poor people to distribute it to.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            You are welcome to read the Rector report for yourself, but I believe it is quite clear that he is not including governmental overhead in the $927 billion. He does not mention overhead and there is no discussion of how he would calculate “governmental overhead,” which is not broken out as a separate line item in departmental budgets. Thus, of the overall spending, $182.1 billion represents the value of the means-tested cash transfers through Supplemental Security Income, the Earned Income Tax Credit, etc. The biggest category is, of course, Medicaid, and here I think the $458.6 billion is simply reimbursement to physicians, hospitals, etc. Of course, in the absence of the state kind hearted people might be willing to provide cash benefits and a comparable level of medical care (and housing, etc.) to the indigent for free, or maybe not.

            It seems to me that a “partly empirical” question just is an empirical question, unless you are saying that no conceivable set of factual outcomes would change your opinion. However, in this case your view would not be “partly empirical,” but entirely philosophical (which is fine by me). I happen to share your view that the poor (and pretty much everyone else) would fare better under ordered anarchy, but I would be very reluctant to base my commitment to libertarianism on my gut feeling.

      • erp617

        Damn straight and they don’t have to stay “poor.” The can with hard work and ambition become tax payers instead of tax takers.

    • good_in_theory

      “Welfare for the able-bodied who choose to drink and/or drug themselves or engage in other self-destructive behavior only contributes to their problem.”

      Claim requires evidence.

      • erp617

        Evidence is in front of your eyes.

    • shemsky

      I’d say that it’s unconscionable to force other people “to pay people who won’t even take of themselves a nice income for any children they may bring into the world”. If A wants to pay to support C, who, for whatever reasons, made bad choices, then that’s one thing. A has a right to do that with his own resources if he or she so chooses. But if A wants to force B to support C in the same situation, then that’s quite another thing. B should be allowed to make his own determination as to whether C is worthy of his support. In my line of work I see lots of welfare fraud, and it’s no wonder that so much fraud occurs. There’s too much incentive to commit welfare fraud. A lot of people would rather make less income and not have to work for it, or they do have income that they’re hiding under the table. The social service workers have an incentive to turn a blind eye to it, because it means job security for them. And this bad situation only takes away from the people who really are in need through no fault of their own.

      • erp617

        Absolutely correct.

  • ben

    “And, to some degree, to have free will is a personal achievement.”
    That’s pretty much what Immanuel Kant said, isn’t it?

    • No, Kant didn’t say that. And what does it even mean? Doesn’t the concept of “personal achievement” presuppose free will?

      • See the linked paper.

        • Oh, I see. But the paper isn’t on “free will” in the sense that I (or Kant) was using the term.

      • ben

        What about Kant’s famous “Enlightenment is emergence from self-inflicted immaturity”? Sounds to me like he is calling it a personal achievement (rather than dependent on any outside influences) to start being a mature, free-will-using agent.

  • Sean II

    This question leads into a terrible nightmare, of which all libertarians should be afraid.

    What if that thing we call free will only exists above some firm biological threshold? What if you need an IQ over 100 even to begin having it, and an IQ over 115 to gain the full benefits of its use?

    What if the tech entrepreneur who insists that he earned his millions, and the homeless alcoholic who swears he never deserved his fate…what if they’re both right?

    Among other things, we would have to stop thinking of them as two members of the same species. A truly repulsive thing to consider…

    • And why on earth would you regard this “terrible nightmare” as remotely plausible?

      What if all Swedish people were really vampires from Venus? That would be alarming too.

      • Sean II

        on what I’ve seen of Swedish cinema, I’m not sure THAT possibility can be ruled
        out entirely.

        A nightmare only needs a small quotient of
        plausibility to be disturbing. I’ve met some people in whom the capacity
        to make purposeful choices, if it exists, is very well hidden. I’m not talking
        about those who would be labeled mentally ill, nor about those who are
        deliberately self-destructive. I’m
        talking about people who give every appearance of wanting to act on their own
        behalf, but who cannot seem either to develop or reliably carry out plans in
        furtherance of that end.

        Sometimes I wonder what must be lacking with them,
        and I worry that I may not like the answer if I ever found it. Is that really so absurd?

        • Sean II

          Also, I’m sorry my comment ended up being formatted like an e.e. cummings’ poem. Not sure what I did wrong there.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            OK by me: I like e.e. cummings. 🙂

  • ben

    “Or is the issue that Caplan–unlike most academics–respects the poor enough to point fingers at them?”

    Well, whether calling someone unintelligent and irrational is *closer* to treating them like a responsible agent and your peer, than calling their choices rational within their unfortunately constrained set of options, could be debated…

    • Yes, precisely the response I was going to give. I agree that sometimes blaming people can be a form of respect, but only when that blame is for things that are within their control or at least morally attributable to them. On Caplan’s argument, the poverty of the poor is their fault, but because of stable and immutable features of their personalities.

      Shorter: faulting someone for doing something wrong shows respect. Faulting them for being stupid and crazy does not.

      • I suspect you and Caplan agree more than it seems. If given 100 random poor people to evaluate, after taking their full histories into account, I bet you’d judge them (or refrain from judging them) similarly.

        • That’s likely true on an individual-by-individual basis — our disagreement, I take it, is about the incidence and effects of poverty-caused constraints on the choices of the poor. That’s much easier to observe for an individual than it is in the aggregate.

        • (Huh, that’s weird, the previous reply didn’t post. Anyway, I tried to say that you’re probably right about this. Things like irresponsibility vs. constraint are much easier to observe in individuals than in the aggregate.)

  • if you are young, have frequent heterosexual vaginal sex, and don’t use a condom (or some other form of birth control), you will probably get pregnant.

    If you are a woman. Otherwise the odds are lower.

  • Christopher Buchholz

    Why do you think they are culpable for failing to know about birth control? Many grow up in areas where their parents and even teachers tell them birth control doesn’t work, and fails, and only Natural Family Planning works. Their churches all sell them this every week. So I’m not sure how the average person (like your relative without a high school diploma) is going to go educate himself and say to himself “I bet all my teachers and parents and authority figures were wrong, and I’m gonna get myself some education on birth control” or just shrug and say “all the experts and learned people in my life told me this stuff doesn’t work, so I figure they are right”

    • I agree. Thus “almost everyone” rather than everyone. Take the kids on Teen Mom and 16 and Pregnant. So far, all of those moms should have known better. Most of the kids at my high school–where we had real, European-style sex ed classes– who got pregnant should have known better. But of course some people grow up brainwashed or in information-deficient environments.

      • You also have to factor in the terrible tendency of adolescents to tune out any input that appears to come from an authority figure.

  • hya

    Jason, what if a person’s moral (or rational) compass is shaped by the circumstances they grew up in? You might say that that’s disrespectful, but I’m not sure it’s any worse than someone privileged blaming others in circumstances more dire than his and holding them up to unreasonable expectations.

    • I do not believe that ever actually happens. I used to do a lot of social work with poor people. Believe me, they know right from wrong, they know what are useful and smart things to do, and which things are self destructive. It becomes apparent as they know exactly which lies to tell social workers to get more benefits.

      Just knowing what to do and actually doing the right thing are two different things.
      As time went on, I grew disillusioned about social work. All the pathologies which my instructors blamed on poverty, I came to see in another light. It was the pathologies that caused the poverty. Chicken and the Egg.

      • purple_platypus

        “It becomes apparent as they know exactly which lies to tell social workers to get more benefits.”

        That need not reflect any sincerely held beliefs about right and wrong (indeed, if it did, one would expect such behaviour to be less prevalent than you seem to paint it as being). All it need mean is that they’ve learned how to game the system, to make the best of a bad situation.

      • There is no real difference between poor people on welfare knowing which lies to tell to get more money, and rich people hiring expensive accountants to set up overseas tax shelters. In both cases it is called Gaming The System. It just seems that there is a double standard at work. When rich people do it it is regarded as “entrepreneurial”, “smart” etc. When poor people do it it is regarded as cheating.

  • ThaomasH

    An interesting discussion, but I can’t escape the feeling that
    behind it is a policy question about how and how much assistance to provide to
    “the poor” and I agree that the philosophical question is relevant to
    our opinions on that policy question. It is also interesting, however, that the
    BHL site is not having a similar philosophical discussion on the moral status
    of the people who benefit from having “carried interest” treated as a
    capital gains, or recipients of crop subsidies.

  • RickDiMare

    “The most perfect success at removing external impediments to
    our positive freedom would leave us still needing to confront this last
    frontier: internal obstacles.”

    Jason, great article with David Schmidtz. In my view, “Psychological Freedom, the Last Frontier” is one of the most important articles I’ve read on the BHL blog site so far.

  • DavidCheatham

    I have to agree with Gowder’s points. It’s all well and good to say ‘Joining a gang is a stupid choice’. It certainly would be a stupid choice for me to go and join one.

    But a lot of things that would make it stupid for me to join a gang do not apply to people living in those neighborhoods:

    a) It is probably physically _safer_ to join a gang than to not. You will no longer be harassed by that gang, other gangs will leave you alone as long as you follow territory rules, and unaffiliated criminals won’t touch you. Gangs are not, contrary to what people think, always running around and knifing or shooting each other.

    b) There is not the stigmata of criminality in that area. Everywhere else in the county, ‘Are you a felon?’ is right there on the job application. But not in those areas. In those areas, huge percentages of young men, have already committed crimes and are already under the legal system. It’s seen as normal. Young people in those areas often don’t realize how badly a two-year stint in prison will cost them, essentially trapping them forever.

    c) There are no jobs. And while for many many people being out of work means ‘living in your parents basement’ or ‘crashing on a friends couch’..for them, it does not. They do not have any fallback places that the middle class has, because they don’t _know_ anyone in the middle class. Everyone they know has no extra money. But if you join the gang, hey, you can sleep in that abandoned building they’re in.

    d) They probably are slightly stupider, to some extent. They had worse nutrition, any learning disabilities they had were probably ignored instead of helped like at better schools, the culture doesn’t reward education in any way, and the schools were just crappier.

    e) But drowning out d is: They’re stupider because they’re _younger_. They make bad choices when 14 and 15, which, incidentally, is when every single human male in America makes bad choices if allowed. It’s just their bad choices are _much harder to recover from_.

    It’s easy to stand off to the side and say ‘What stupid decisions’. It must all be D! They must be stupid, or, if we’re feeling charitable, ‘uneducated’.

    But their choices are impossibly limited compared to other people. The poor have _always_ failed the moral standards of the wealthy, and the wealthy have _always_ stood there judging them for it, saying they don’t deserve help. The wealthy _always_ see obvious ways for the poor to help themselves, the wealthy _always_ wonder why the poor are apparently so stupid, the wealthy _always_ see the poor wasting money on frivolous things.

    Here’s a fun thing to think about next time you see someone talking about how the poor spend money, how a poor person that makes $500 a month had a $500 TV…check out what car they drive. Then ask them how much, each money, they make after taxes.

    And then ask them if they couldn’t have gotten a car that was {one month paycheck} cheaper. The answer to that is ‘Yes’. Then ask if they couldn’t have gotten one that was {five months paycheck} cheaper. The answer to that is almost always ‘Yes’.

    Somehow, when they get laid off and have trouble making ends meet, _their_ extra $5,000 spending on a $1000 a month isn’t irresponsible. But $500 on $500 a month? Why, what an idiot!

    The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread. -Anatole France

    • Sean II


      A great comment all around, however…your first point a) is incorrect. Joining a street gang vastly increases a young man’s chances of being injured or killed, first by the police, next by members of his own gang, and finally by members of other gangs.

      Believe me, I once thought as you do (gangs are a natural response to the problem of personal security in bad neighborhoods) until I got some exposure to actual gangs. Things turn out to be quite the opposite of what I expected.

      The young man who joins a gang isn’t acting to increase his safety, he’s trading his safety away. What does he buy with it? Not money, that’s for sure. Usually, the end product is something he calls “respect”. And despite what one might imagine from Mafia movies, respect is not “a social status that reduces your chances of being attacked”. Instead it’s something that obliges its would be owner to incessantly challenge and provoke everyone else who aspires to compete for respect (evidently, it’s a zero sum good), while threatening and intimidating everyone else so they learn to pay the precise level of respect desired.

      You know all those homicides the media calls “gang related” or “drug related”? You can’t believe how many of them begin with stories like this: “Well, we was at a party, and that’s when Lil’ Pete dissed Ray-Mo. He couldn’t have that, you know what I’m saying? There was girls watching and shit. So Ray just stepped up and started blastin’.”

      Very often the two guys involved are from different sets of the same gang, who had no claims against each other for money or drugs, had never fought before, had nothing but social prestige to gain or lose in the attack.

      In other words…by any calculus or standard of value recognized by anyone who might ever read what we are writing here, joining a gang is a completely stupid move that comes very close to guaranteeing a bad outcome for the person who makes it.

      But as I said, the rest of your comment sounded spot on to me. I quarrel only with that one small point.

      • DavidCheatham

        That’s entirely possible The point isn’t really that it is _actually_ safer, it’s that it can appear to be safer, or at least the same amount of safe.

        Especially for boys 13 and 14, which, let us say, are not the best judge of risk that humanity has produced.

        But I’m not convinced it’s actually unsafe in any great amount. At least, not outside the normal bounds of unsafe thing that society has us do.

        Checking stats, in 2007, LA supposedly had 39,000 gang members. And the police said 200 murders were ‘gang related’ that year. That’s 5 gang-related murders per 1000 gang members. But I doubt all of them were _of_ gang members. Surely gangs kill people outside gangs, or there would be no reason to even worry about them. Let’s say half of those were actual gang members, and the other half random people. So 100 gang members died. (*)

        So let’s say it’s 25 out of 10,000 of getting murdered if you join a gang.

        Let’s compare that to something else: Driving. There’s roughly 1 death per 58 million vehicle miles. Which sounds like much less, but of course people drive more than a mile at once. If you drive 25 miles a day, that’s 9131 miles a year. That’s odd of dying at one in 6442. Or 15 in 100,000.

        And that’s if you only drive 25 a day. Drive 100 a day, and the odd of death per year are 60 in 100,000, aka, 6 in 10,000.

        Somehow, someone with a 100 mile commute just has an annoying job, and society has no problem, or even concept, of the risk, but someone who joins a gang, which is, apparently, only four times riskier, is an idiot and showing poor judgement.

        *) Adding more gang members dead doesn’t really change the math here. It might be ten times riskier than driving or whatever. The point is ‘joining a gang’ risk seems to be within an order of magnitude of risk that the rest of society accepts.

        • Sean II

          Good point, except the commuter gains some tangible rewards for risking life and limb on his morning drive. He gets wages, access to health care, a 401k or, at the very least, a claim on social security. He also gets a bit of perceived legitimacy to discourage the cops from kicking his ass if he ever gets pulled over. His risks can only be measured against those gains.

          The gang member gets none of these things, and indeed the downside of his position includes many risks that fall just short of death. It’s hard to price the suffering that comes from four years in prison, except that I’d give every penny I have to avoid it. (I suspect you would do the same, since people who comment on philosophy blogs don’t usually have the skills required to get them through that first, awkward visit to the yard.)

          Plus, a commuter who survives a car accident usually gets to go right back to work. Try getting a job when you have to tell the hiring manager that the hearing loss in your left ear was caused by a police baton, when you were beaten up and charged with felony resisting at age 19.

          You’re right that gang membership is massively inflated, both by the police and by what hardcore gang members scornfully call “perpetrators”, i.e, impostors. And maybe you’re also right that, if we had the numbers, the risks of being in a gang would turn out to be somewhat exaggerated.

          But my argument doesn’t hinge on those points, only on the idea that the benefits of gang membership are so illusory that the risks must turn out to be excessive when measured against them.

  • An interesting response to Caplan from Karl Smith a while back is that single mothers are making a utility-maximizing choice. Having grown up poor he says that his honest advice to someone in that situation is that the elites have different interests and their advice not to get knocked up should be discounted.

  • dL

    Seems to me the definition of responsibility here carries an attend implication of obedience to an unjust political economic system. You are trading in obedience to a corrupt system in exchange for a paternalistic, subsidized middle-class, wage slaved existence. And you are patting yourselves on the back, to boot. In that sense, I would call you subsidized wage slaves the welfare queens.

    I suppose I’m the exhibit A of your critique. Someone who used his mathematics degree initially for a a “career path” in the drug trade and sex industry(btw, having unprotected sex with hundreds and hundred of people, both straight and gay, without a whiff of disease or without causing any pregnancies, I can say, without doubt, the most likely vector for “unintended pregnancies” is unprotected sex with your wife or long-term girlfriend. The latter is what burnt me twice. I have laugh at the moralistic PSA nature of this post.).

    Also, as someone who has been a partner in his own company for over decade now, I can say that the surest sign for likely unfitness as an entrepreneur is marriage and kids. It is very difficult to raise a family without the subsidization of the paternalistic State. Operating without the implicit and explicit subsidies makes it difficult for MWK to hold out for very long if the cash flows become interrupted. Particularly in my line, which is internet, where value is placed often on “network flows” and not the traditional accounting cash flows, MWKs is a predictor of “unfitness.”

    I find Caplan’s social analysis to be standard fare corporate/progressive/conservative. For an actual radical libertarian analysis(and a more accurate one, I would contend), I would recommend Thaddeus Russell’s “A Renegade History of the United State.’ You owe your freedoms to the non-compliant, the social dregs, the socially unfit, the very people the professional wage-slavers criticize as a drag on the social fabric.

    • TracyW

      It is very difficult to raise a family without the subsidization of the paternalistic State.”

      And yet our ancestors managed it for millennia. And not only without subsidization of the state, but without electricity or hot water on tap.

      • dL

        just to be clear , i find the need for such subsidy to be an artificial consequence of political economy.

    • When a person starts describing our advanced, human rights oriented, society as inherently corrupt and starts talking about wage slaves etc. Then It is usually followed by something less than useful. This has been no exception.

      • dL

        your equation of a police state with an “advanced, human rights oriented society” is a sick joke, and it tells me all I need to know about the worth of your contributing dialogue…

  • liberty

    However, it’s worth noting that to judge someone as morally responsible tends to show respect. You treat that person as an agent with sufficient control over his or her life. ”

    Bryan did not sound respectful in the slightest, as others have pointed out. Also, although in the US many who do not blame the poor sometimes come off as paternalistic, in other countries with a different attitude to welfare and entitlements this is not as much the case. It is understood that unequal starting points will often produce unequal outcomes.

    Yes hard work will tend to help the poor do better, but if someone is in a family in which nobody has ever had post-secondary education, whose parents have been abusive and/or themselves abused, grew up in a neighborhood with rampant crime and addiction, etc. it will be FAR harder for them to work hard and pull themselves up by the bootstraps — to recognize this is merely to open ones eyes to an obvious truth — and blaming the poor and calling them stupid and irresponsible doesn’t help.

    Notice that the immigrants who start with $100 and do well for themselves, even if they don’t speak English, often DO NOT have the background I describe (parents may have been educated back home, were not abused/abusive, do not live around crime and addiction, etc).

    • Over time I have come to see all of this as nothing more than excuses. Most people face hardships in their life. How you deal with those hardships shapes your outcomes. There are far too many examples of people with bad starts in life who have made something of their lives. People who came out of abusive or drug addles families. Did they make excuses? No, they did what they had to, they took advantage of whatever aid there was available.

      By the time you are an adult, you know what is right and what is not helpful. Sometimes the simple truth is that some people are simply irresponsible.

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  • Daniel Shapiro

    Perhaps someone noted this already, and if so I apologize for redunancy, but two problems with blaming are that (a) if it is often ineffective and (b) worse, make the situation worse.