• Sergio Méndez

    Well…if Bryan Caplan thinks helping the poor is giving charity….he should be charitable enought to stop writing about helping the poor.

  • Sergio,

    Can you explain? I don’t want to put words in anyone’s mouth, but I don’t suspect that Bryan Caplan (or anyone else who writes for either BHL or EconLog) would suggest that charity is either the only or maybe even the best way (over the long run) to help the poor. But it seems obvious to me that it is one legitimate way to help poor people. If I give, say, to a charity whose purpose is to give food to the poor, then as long as we assume the charity does its job relatively well, there will be poor people who will get food as a result of my contribution, right?

    Or do you mean something different by your comment?

    • Sergio Méndez

      Well, I take it from what I read in the link that appears in the post. Caplan seems to talk there only about charity and if it is his moral obligation to give or not. However, note that I said “If”, cause I am not sure if that is his only idea of helping the poor.

      And yes, charity is a way of helping the poor, or at least some very few poor. But if there is anything the left, neo liberal technocrats and even libertarians agree, is that what is needed is a structural change so poor (in general ) can stop being poor without ever resorting to charity. Of course, the recipes are different depending on all those groups, but charity as a general formula for helping the poor? I don´t think so…do you?

      • shemsky

        Sergio, read the “Last Point” section from the first article that Matt links to, where Bryan talks about how immigration policy harms poor people. That would seem to indicate that Bryan doesn’t intend for charity to be the only way of helping the poor.

        • Sean II

          Another thing indicating that Caplan isn’t presenting charity as the only solution for the poor: pretty much his entire body of work.

      • Guy stuck on the side of the road. Car tire blown out. Waves down passing car.

        Libertarian/Marxist in the car: “Sorry, buddy. What we need is structural change. In a [Communist Utopia/Freed market], there would be far fewer blown out tires, you know!”

        Drives on by…

        • Sean II

          One amusing thing about that example: the libertarian is expressing a hope, but the Marxist is stating an established fact.

          There really were fewer blown tires under Communism!

        • Hume22

          Matt, this is brilliant.
          I am tempted to extend the spirit of this hypo to Rawlsians, notwithstanding Rawls’ inclusion of a natural duty of rescue, for it seems they are committed to a duty to establish institutions, not help individual suffering under conditions of injustice (although Rawlsians could supplement the justice story with a comprehensive moral theory).
          I would be interested to hear your thoughts on Barbara Herman’s account of “inhereited obligations” and Liam Murphy on our moral responsibilities in conditions of non-compliance.

  • matt b

    Run for president Bryan and then open the borders, establish universal free trade, end the drug war, and then close most government agencies and departments and we will be well on our way.

    • I agree with all those, making a precision: establish TRUE universal free trade, the faux free trade of “free trade agreements”.

      • matt b

        Yes but…. That’s my response to all of these type of libertarian purity objections. Yes but let’s not allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good. We are better off with NAFTA, with its many managed trade features, than without it.

        • I am not very sure this is a question of “imperfection”, rather than perversion. Free trade agreements are not much about free trade, but about very unqual, very unfair trade conditions (regarding rules, protectionism -subsidies specifically- and the lack of mobility for workers in contrast to capital).

          • matt b

            I hear you, I really do. Your point about lack of mobility for workers is particularly powerful to me as a big believer in opening the borders. But are we better off with NAFTA than without? think so.

    • Unfortunately running for President will not enable Caplan of do any of those things, no more than it enabled Ron Paul to bring all the troops home.

      • matt b

        True enough but seeing him cause all the other candidates to crap themselves as they struggle to explain how they are pro-opportunity while supporting a myriad of lunatic regulations would be fun.

  • I think Bryan is actually right on this one. The difference between helping a drowning child and feeding a poor beggar is that one is an emergency. Maybe someone can make a successful argument that we have a moral obligation to help someone who is poor, but they’re going to have to come up with a better example than the drowning child case.

    • matt b

      I’m not sure that’s right. To me, the idea here is that if we can help someone in a state of extreme distress which has the potential to end their ability to act as an autonomous being by threatening their existence at low cost then we should do so. Whether it’s dying in 2 months because you can’t get insurance or dying in 2 minutes… well that seems to be the difference between pulse pounding “in the moment” crazyness and a slow burn but I don’t think that impacts the principle.

      • I think Huemer has some pretty good counter examples of helping people who are not better off. I can’t remember them off the top of my head, though. Will have to revisit.

        I am sympathetic to the idea that we should help the poor, though. I am not at all saying we have an absolute 0 obligation to the poor.

    • j r

      You are right. It is a terrible example so long as poverty is endemic, which it is. Poverty is less like encountering a drowning child and more like coming upon the Titianic. The moment you pull one person from the water, you realize that there are hundreds more in the exact same position. That significantly alters the ethical calculations.

      • matt b

        That was Caplan’s argument, yes. But that’s precisely the argument for BHL. Because the burden would be far too much for one person to bear you spread it out with each person doing a little something which adds up to a lot. And of course you free the market and open the borders which, in effect, would like be preventing the Titanic from hitting the iceberg.

  • matt b


    I demand a Zwolinski-Caplan debate. Your exchange on the “drowning child” was awesome and left me (and many others I’m sure) wanting more. I’m not a hard libertarian but Bryan is among the most intelligent and capable defenders of that perspective. And unlike George H Smith, he engages without… well let’s not go back to that.

    • You haven’t heard Caplan debate, have you. He can be quite snarky when he wants to be (typically in an intra-libertarian debate)

      • matt b

        I have actually, watched his debate with Ilya Somin in which I thought he lost quite badly while of course still coming of as smart as hell. But his snark is more in good fun than Smith’s which I judged as being quite sharp and mean spirited.

    • Sean II

      Um, as I have it, Smith was not first to breach the peace of decorum*. By the time he showed up here, he’d already been called a cartoon libertarian, as far as he could tell.

      * which, as always, I hold to be greatly overrated.

      • matt b

        He is a cartoon libertarian thought (with no disrespect to cartoons). That does not mean he’s not intelligent and capable of offering probing criticism of bad leftist ideas but his arguments for hard libertarianism are extraordinarily unpersuasive. And I think Jason called him a cartoon libertarian, not Matt but even so his general tone was needlessly hostile. And yes Sean we know, you hate decorum 🙂 Damn it to hell haha.

    • I think a Zwolinski-Huemer debate would be better. It bothers me that Huemer is not more involved in libertarian things. As far as I am concerned, he’s the best libertarian philosopher (no offense, Matt Z).

      • matt b

        That would be epic. I think Huemer is incredibly sharp but his book frustrates me because the entire thesis is “Okay yeah thenon-aggression axiom is kind of problematic because you know the whole steal a penny to save the world thing so sure preventing X could justify coercion even outside of protecting rights but it’s hard to think of too many situations like this.” But then he fails to engage, I think, with all the social welfare/justice arguments for state action which state “XYZ consequences are so awful we need the state.” Maybe those people are wrong but Huemer hasn’t made the case.

        • The point of the book was more or less to examine the legitimacy of government. It seems like you might be referring to the consequentialist argument. You’re right, there wasn’t enough on that, but unfortunately his publisher limited to a certain amount that he could write. I would guess that he might take a look at just about any public choice argument. And he even may concede some things that the government does is better than the private sector (I could be wrong, though. I haven’t really talked to him about it), but regardless that wouldn’t justify having a large coercive entity like government. Especially with all its failures.

  • Sean II

    This is a methods-only comment, but I must confess to hating this moral intuitionist fad, where we try to settle (or at least ground) really big ethical questions by taking informal polls among first world college students and blog chatterers.

    You know what would actually happen if you asked everyone on earth about the drowning child example? A couple billion respondents would say “Wait, before I commit here, is the child male or female? Is it of my religion or that evil creed they follow down the road? What race is the child? What social rank? Throw me a bone here…I really can’t swim and this is a tough decision for me.”

    Please put that unpleasant thought in your intuitionist pipe and smoke it.

    At the very least we must insist that ordinarily rigorous sampling methods be applied to these questions. If one’s goal is to show that something is an intuition, as opposed to just a convention, then surely I should not need to explain why we can’t discuss the question only among people who already share conventions, backgrounds, conditions, etc…and happen to be in Peter Singer’s classroom with nothing better to do.

    Strictly speaking, to talk about moral intuition in human nature we’d need a time machine to survey a sample of all the humans who ever lived. Failing that, we should at least be required ask some people different from ourselves. Failing even that, it would be nice if we simply remembered that such people do exist, and tried a bit of empathy to guess what they might say.

    • Sean II

      Pardon the self-reply, but I really thought this worth adding:

      It’s not just that the polling sample is too small in just about every moral intuition argument I’ve ever heard, it’s also a serious problem that these questions are almost always taken one-at-a-time. In other words, they never ask enough people, and they never ask enough questions.

      Even if it were true that most people, and most of the people who have ever lived, express a strong intuition in favor of rescuing the drowning child, we would still have to grapple with their other intuitions, including those which don’t help us make whatever point we happen to be pressing at the moment.

      So, for example, if you say “most people will save the drowning child”, I’m obliged to remind you that most of the people who have ever lived would express a strong intuition that “a female is worthless unless she has a) her virginity, or b) a husband. And if she lost a) without gaining b), we don’t care how it happened. She’s ruined.” Hell, that view might still have as many as two billion adherents, even now.

      Then I must ask…remind me again why we would ever want to ground a moral theory in what “most people” think, say, or do? It’s not like we can just cherry pick the intuitions palatable to 21st century Euro-Americans and leave the rest behind. That would just be intrinsically revolting.

  • shemsky

    So tell me, Matt, if my neighbor’s child is sick, the child’s parents can’t afford treatments to cure him, and I decline to help, what sanctions would you have imposed on me?

    • matt b

      Is this to me or Matt Z?

      • shemsky

        Matt Z. But go ahead and respond if you feel moved to do so.

        Matt Z, you opened this can of worms, so I think you should answer the question.

        • Matt Z. does have a job, you know.

          But his answer is, for what it’s worth, “None.”

          You’ve left almost every detail of the case unspecified. But I do not believe that individual persons have, as a general matter, an enforceable obligation to provide medical care for people who happen to live next to them.

          Does that somehow strike you as inconsistent with what I said about the drowning child? Cuz I don’t think so.

          • shemsky

            Matt, I didn’t mean right this instant. I can appreciate that you have other pressing responsibilities and might take some time to get to the response. I do it all the time.

            You said that we have a moral duty to help the poor, and the linked article seems, to me at least, to support the idea of some institutional body to enforce that duty. I’m not that concerned with what you said about the drowning child – who could for all we know be the child of a millionaire.

            So how do you propose that this institution carry out the task of enforcing our supposed duty to help the poor, without a massive violation of both the rights and the privacy and the dignity of individuals? Please fill us in on the details.

          • matt b

            Matt’s response is based on the premise that professors are hard workers and don’t have all the time in the world to respond to people on blogs. How silly 🙂 Haha. But you know, and maybe this is because I’m more of a social liberal than Matt Z is, but I don’t think it’s so unclear that some measure of enforceability is problematic. Is it really so absurd to suggest that people should never suffer through no fault of their own assuming they have no reasonable means to alleviate such suffering and that people have a moral obligation to ensure the minimal well being of innocent others?

          • shemsky

            Matt b, please read the last paragraph of my most recent response to Matt Z. Then (please) give me your answer.

            I don’t assume that I have a moral obligation to ensure the minimal well being of innocent others, unless I caused their problems.

          • matt b

            Well let’s get specific. No duty whatsoever or no extensive duty? I mean if you can heal someone of a deadly disease by giving them a buck would you not be obligated to do so? Now if you had to give them all you had and then be sentenced to a life foraging in a forest in your underwear… not so much. I think that the objection on the grounds of extreme demandingness is a good one. But that’s the problem BHL tries to address by saying we should all band together. In other words, if I give a little bit, and you give a little bit, and so on and so forth we can help people meet their basic needs. So if your objection is on the grounds of extreme demandingness I would say the BHL approach of shared responsibility settles it. Now if you say we have no responsibility to others at all, no matter how little the cost to us, then we just have a fundamental moral disagreement. I think treating people as ends in themselves- the essence of libertarianism for a lot of us- argues very strongly in favour of aid to those in need through no fault of their own.

          • shemsky

            Matt b, you said let’s get specific and then you didn’t get specific. Specifically:

            What criteria do you have in mind to determine whether or not individuals would be eligible to receive benefits under your proposed program, and what means would be employed to verify that those individuals requesting benefits actually meet that criteria?

            Perhaps even more importantly, what criteria do you have in mind to determine each individual’s obligation to contribute to your proposed program, and what means would be employed to verify that each individual was in fact satisfying their personal obligation to do so?

            All without violating an individual’s right to property and privacy, and while respecting the dignity of each individual. Those are libertarian ideals, aren’t they? Let’s keep the libertarian in bleeding heart libertarians.

          • matt b

            I’m not designing a public policy paper but rather offering some general principles. The first was “Innocent people should not suffer through no fault of their own. If no reasonable alternative outside state action could alleviate their suffering it would be morally permissible for the state to intervene” and the second was “Because people are ends in themselves and merit being treated as such it’s reasonable for the state to ensure, through the protection of basic welfare, that all individuals are in fact treated as such.” On the obligation side, I would propose some sort of tax supported (through low, more or less flat taxes) voucher scheme for the basics of life. On the rights violation side, if you don’t believe people have an unconditional right to property then there isin’t a rights violation to address.

          • shemsky

            In other words, Matt, you want to live in a libertarian world, but you don’t want to live in a libertarian world.

          • matt b

            A lot of these debates come down to definition. My views are perfectly compatible with the writings of Friedman, Hayek, and Buchanan, three giants who supported a limited welfare state. These men are widely considered libertarians. But sure if Rand or Rothbard is your standard then I’m a dirty commie. But I think that’s why we need to think of libertarianism as something which is decidedly not monolithic and accomodating within its conceptual tent a lot of different views. To me, ensuring people don’t suffer through no fault of their own through state action as a last option is not unlibertarian.

          • shemsky

            Except that your preferred means of easing that suffering is the cause of mass violations of individual rights to property and privacy, which is unlibertarian. You need to come up with a way of satisfying your conscience that doesn’t violate other people’s rights, and that does respect their human dignity. That’s libertarian.

            I don’t care what Friedman, Hayek, Buchanan, Rand or Rothbard thought about the matter. I only care about what is just and right.

          • matt b

            You’re engaging in question begging. You say taxation to fund the alleviation of suffering is a violation of individual rights to property and this is a libertarian view. So the first thing is that you have to argue for the idea that people have an absolute 100 percent unconditional right to property since it’s not morally self-evident by any means like “don’t torture people for fun.” So just asserting that it’s a rights violation as if it’s an obvious thing like the right not to be tortured for fun just strikes me as really presumptuous. Secondly, you act as if your position is clearly the libertarian one and mine is not when, within the libertarian tradition, there is a great deal of support for a limited welfare state.

          • shemsky

            Then aren’t we all engaging in question begging? Is it self evident that we have an obligation to ease the suffering of others? Do you get to decide what is self evident and what is not self evident? There is no objective morality that I am aware of.

          • matt b

            You do believe in some sort of moral obligation to assist those in need through no fault of their own though right? I mean it seems to me that when you argue for a social safety net assuming private charity fails that’s what you’re saying?

          • Yes, but it’s an imperfect duty (on this point I agree with Roderick), and limited in what it can demand of us. Shallow pond cases are easy because they are infrequent and relatively undemanding. I’m much less clear that we have a strong moral duty to provide for expensive medical treatment for someone who simply happens to live next door to us.

          • matt b


            Well it’s complicated as always isin’t it? If creating a system in which we provide medical treatment for our next door, first world neighbours and that makes people resistant to more open immigration then you could argue quite plausibly that, on net, the cause of human welfare is greatly undermined. I wonder, though, if you are sympathetic regarding Satz’s claim in your debate that, to paraphrase her, “to act autonomously and develop themselves as rational agents, egalitarian liberals believe individuals need an adequate set of resources including…” and she went on to say education and health care.

          • shemsky

            That’s just it, matt. The same state you favor to alleviate poverty can and will use their authority to do all kinds of other nasty things. They’re not going to limit themselves to just what matt b wants them to do. You should seriously consider the questions I asked you above. What kinds of powers are necessary to do what you say you want the state to do? Will using these powers violate the rights of individuals? Do you enjoy submitting yourself to the IRS every year? Are the financial agreements you have with your employer or your customers or anyone else you deal with the legitimate business of the government? Should your life be an open book to the public? You may think you have certain obligations to others, but I can assure you that other people have other ideas about what they want from you, things that you might think are very bad and unworthy, and those people will use your state to get them from you. And all just because you think you will have a clear conscience.

          • matt b

            I think this is a much better post than the other one where you lay out the “property rights are unconditional” view without arguing for it as if it’s morally self-evident. So yeah when you get ouside the realm of ideal theory there’s great reason to be skeptical of the state being limited to its proper functions and going off and doing “other nasty things.” I guess my approach is pretty empirical. I look at government failure on one hand and market failure on the other and at the end of the day I say “Yup markets are pretty much the way to go, almost always in fact.” But not always. For example, I want a police force. And the fact that it sometimes does bad things does not lead me to say “You know what the solution is? Abolishing it.”

          • shemsky

            No, don’t abolish police forces. Just abolish the state. In other words, privatize police forces. You can still be protected from criminals under a private police force.

            I suppose that now you’re going to say that bad things might happen under a private police force. How is that any different than under a state sponsored police force?

  • les kyle Nearhood

    As to a moral obligation to help the poor. Please read my post under

    Eudaimonism and Non-Aggression above.

  • Bryan Caplan

    No one wants to actually answer my question? 🙂

    • I answered the question, but it seems to have been swallowed by a spam filter since I dared to put in an actual link. The most effective way to help the poor is to expend resources to change the system for doing so to take it out of the inefficient government sector, which leads to far more resources more effectively applied with greater efficiency than the smaller amount of resources you might directly put to the task. i.e. leverage. I posted about a new potential strategy for doing so. It is on the website I have, I won’t post a link to avoid the spam filter. Perhaps I’ll retype it if no one takes it out of the bogus spam filter and break the link up to avoid it.

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  • adem

    hello rich peopel my name is adem dobratiqi from kosovo,I am father of 2 small children I have no job I am poor man pleas help me .thank you

  • Kristy

    What happened to this post is a prime example of the problem with a libertarian movement – herding cats..

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