I will debate Bryan Caplan on this topic this coming Wednesday.

Bryan’s says

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.

Tyler correctly predicts that no one – not least myself – knows for sure which Karl Smith will show up.

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.

Though it will be tough I will resist the urge to preemptively concede to Bryan on the grounds that desert is a fiction and morality a farce. The only question of any importance is which more unlovely to us: the manners and habits of the poor or the sight, sound and knowledge of their suffering.

Morality – like causality – is a tale told by an idiot. Or, more precisely the left prefrontal cortex. This mass of neurons is tasked with weaving purpose and meaning out of world which has no such things.

When combined with speech this application of narratives to reality allows human beings to operate as a giant hivemind, responding to events they have no direct access to and coordinating behavior in ways that greatly increases the survival rate of their offspring.

All of that having been said, it is lovely to work through the implications of what we believe.

So my basic case is that Bryan’s distinction between utility functions and budget constraints doesn’t correspond to anything that would be relevant to most folk’s well examined sense of morality.

In some cases this is because the distinction is so easily redefined simply by altering the choice set.

Bryan has famously said that the alcoholic is deserves the consequences of his alcoholism because he could have chosen differently. If you put a gun to his head and said don’t drink, the alcoholic could stop.


But, the alcoholic cannot choose the consumption bundle that I chose all the time. That is to not drink and not experience delirium tremors. Putting a gun to his head can’t make him choose that outcome.

I’ll of course go into more detail in the debate but unless you are saying the alcoholic deserves delirium tremors it makes little sense to say that he deserves the poverty that results from his alcoholism. After all poverty is his attempt to better his situation.

I used alcohol because Bryan did but we can keep tracing down the chain to more fundamental properties of people and see that in many cases poverty is an attempt to escape a fate worse than poverty.

Unless you believe that they deserve this worse fate then why do they deserve poverty?