A few people have asked about my debate with Bryan Caplan on the issue of how deserving the poor are. I’ll try to give a sense of the case I wanted, though perhaps failed, to make.

My thesis may be best understood this way:

There is no reason to view emotional or mental deficiencies as different in kind from physical ones. To put it in the harshest of terms, if you think someone who is born blind is deserving of sympathy and support then you should think someone who is born lazy and stupid is deserving of sympathy and support.

Further once you concede that the lazy and stupid are deserving of sympathy then its difficult to construct a set of poor people who are not, since these are among the least sympathetic qualities that could cause someone to be poor.

Thus the vast majority of the poor are deserving of sympathy or support.


As to those attributes. To a wider audience this might be a question, but I had assumed that the audience I was going to speak to at GMU would swallow without objection the notion that IQ is more or less fixed before the age of 12. We can talk about the relative influence of genes, prenatal care, nutrition, early childhood education, lead, etc. However, I didn’t think they would dispute that your IQ is determined before what most people would think of as your moral agency. If so, can it reasonably be your fault that you are stupid?

As it happened I was also debating Bryan Caplan, who I thought and still think, would admit that one’s actual level of conscientiousness is probably genetically determined. And, further that this personality attribute underlies most of what the normal world would call “laziness.”

And so again, if one is sympathetic towards those born blind does it not follow that one should be sympathetic towards those born lazy?


Now, that having been said I recognize that there will be a huge visceral aversion to this line of reasoning. And, so I want to do what I can to calm that aversion.

My point was that the reason we feel so differently about disabilities like blindness as opposed to disabilities like laziness, is that its really difficult to fake being blind. Thus there is much less concern that the blind person is taking advantage of you by lying about their blindness.

Its much more difficult to confirm laziness. So much so that people are hesitant to think of it as not a innate property of the person at all. However, our psychological research strongly suggests that this is not true.

What is true is that someone could claim to be lazy when what they really are is indifferent to your suffering. They could say, “ Holding down a job is especially difficult for me” when in reality they feel “I am simply much more concerned with my own happiness than I am with yours and prefer a state of the world in which you suffer so I don’t have to”

Since from the outside we can’t tell which of those two things is true we reject all claims about laziness as unjustified.

However, we can recognize that this is a product of our limited knowledge and not the world itself. If we could tell who had genuinely low conscientiousness versus who simply claimed to have it in order to pass suffering on to others then we would want to distinguish between the two.

This means that our problem is practical and not moral.

It is not that the lazy are underserving but simply that we lack the technology to distinguish them from those faking laziness.

The irony of this, however, is that if we adopted an economic system that was extremely intolerant of laziness, then everyone who still exhibited laziness would be genuinely lazy.

The authentic thing to say to them then would be: I am very sorry that you were born this way. I wish things were different. Unfortunately we lack the technological sophistication to create a better world.

It would be inauthentic to say: You chose not to work and so you deserve what you get.

Indeed, as economists we can instantly detect the inauthenticity of the last statement by conducting the following thought experiment. Suppose that we took someone who is currently in poverty and told them that on threat of death they will obtain and hold a middle class job as well as save and invest according to middle class norms.

And, suppose the person complies. Would it then make sense to say: congratulations you deserve all the net happiness that comes from these actions? After all, our working assumption as economists is that the net happiness from these actions is negative.

That is, the cost of obeying these social norms exceeds the benefit of obeying them and that is precisely why the person didn’t do it of their own accord.

What does it mean to say that the desert of making hard choices is misery?

I think the natural response here would be to say, very well but how do you know they are miserable. Perhaps they feel the same I as I do but were even happier on the street.

Perhaps, and this goes to the deep question interpersonal comparisons of happiness and suffering. Yet, if we want to stop here and say “we can go no further” then don’t we have to give up on all of our notions of suffering and sympathy?

In the face of the seeming agony of  achild slowly dying of cancer and the parents grieving the creeping loss are we prepared to say: Well I really don’t know if the lived experience of these people is better or worse than my experience of a pin prick and so sympathy is unwarranted here.

My sense is that we do want to admit the meaningfulness of the suffering of others and that we have at least a somewhat workable mechanism at determining what that is. We should then apply this mechanism to those suffering from laziness.

My approach would go as follows. If you see someone who is a beach bum and looks to not have material care in the world you may be able to imagine saying “I wish that I could be as free of material concerns as that fellow.”

We would not deem him to be suffering and so his poverty is not something about which we would have sympathy.

On the other hand, if you observe an individual repeatedly trying to obtain and hold jobs and repeatedly being fired for not showing up on time or screwing off in minor ways, then we imagine saying “I am glad I am not this fellow. He can’t seem to get it together for the life of him.”

We would then deem him to be suffering and so his poverty is something about which we would have sympathy.

Taken all together this says: Even the least sympathetic reasons for being poor stem ultimately from inborn conditions. A person with those conditions faces a high tradeoff between material comfort and emotional distress. I can recognize what it would mean to say the nature of this tradeoff is preferable to my condition or unpreferable to my condition. If it is unpreferable then I can say, this person was born worse off than me and so is deserving of my sympathy.

And, since we find reason to be sympathetic to some of the least sympathetic reasons, for being poor, consistency should lead us to be sympathetic towards almost all reasons for being poor. And, hence we should declare that few if any persons deserve to be poor.

A Few Notes

Why does this matter: Well on one level I simply appeal to the aesthetic. We try to understand our world and our intuitions about it in a consistent way because doing so is beautiful.

In practice I would say it puts an increased focus on the ability of our technology to support the deserving poor without encouraging fakery.

In a very practical sense it might suggests that programs which depend on 1-1 relationships should be given high levels of moral praise as poverty elimination systems. So, that might mean local charities and organizations with the discretion to support individuals or not based on a long history of working with them should been seen as doing a special good.

Isn’t poverty much more complicated than you laid out: For sure. My point is that there are lots of gray areas regarding sympathy and poverty, but rather than getting bogged down in that lets look at the strongest reasons to be unsympathetic and see if they withstand scrutiny.

Is this just more Pity-Charity Liberalism: Yes. And, I think it’s an ethically more meaningful enterprise than getting up in arms about failures of the meritocracy. I don’t know any moral reason why the talented deserve to prosper and the untalented to fail and so the leveling-of-the-playing-field is of purely instrumental importance. It matters if it makes a more productive society or increases personal fulfillment, but it is not a moral cause unto itself.